not in our stars, but in ourselves
47/52: A movie by a South American filmmaker
It would be great if it weren’t worth noting a filmmaker’s gender, but in the case of La Ciénaga (which means The Swamp, if you’re rusty on your Spanish), I do think it’s important to keep in mind. Lucrecia Martel wrote and directed the film, and can therefore fairly be considered a proper auteur. For reasons beyond her literal authorship of La Ciénaga, however, Martel has imbued her debut feature (!) with an unmistakably original point of view – one that couldn’t and wouldn’t have come, I don’t think, from a male filmmaker. It stuck in my mind all the while I was watching, and it’s even more firmly entrenched now that I consider it afterwards. I will focus on the thing itself, and not get too caught up in industry practices, but honestly: hire more women, okay?
To the film: up in the mountains of Argentina somewhere, a group of middle-aged bourgeois seated around a filthy swimming pool are getting stupidly drunk on red wine, cooled with ice cubes. Mecha (Graciela Borges) gathers empty wine glasses to bring them into the house, trips, and falls – onto the pavement and onto the glass. Her adolescent children run rampant around the house, shooting themselves in the eye and growing strangely attached to the servants. Regarding the former, that’s Joaquín (Diego Baenas), who had his accident four years ago and hasn’t yet had any kind of corrective surgery on the gouge where his eye used to be. Regarding the latter, that’s daughter Momi (Sofia Bertolotto) and servant Isabel (Andrea López). Mecha is convinced that Isabel is stealing sheets and towels – a conviction that stems mainly from Mecha’s racist attitudes towards natives, of which Isabel is one – so she plans to fire Isabel. Someday. Maybe. She really needs someone to answer the phone, though. Mecha’s cousin (well, “almost a cousin”), Tali (Mercedes Morán), has a house full of crazy children as well, in the city of La Ciénaga. Tali hears about Mecha’s accident when she’s at the hospital with her youngest, Luchi (Sebastián Montagna), who’s sliced his leg somehow or other. She decides to go visit her cousin up at La Mandrágora, where chaos reigns: Mecha is constantly drunk, her older children are dangerously intimate with one another, the servants are called savages to their faces, the younger children go up into the hills to shoot at cows stuck in the mud, and the pool remains a cloudy and filthy morass.
In terms of plot, that’s sort of it. As David Oubiña puts it in his Criterion Collection essay:
There are many stories in La Ciénaga, and the film hints at them all without committing itself to any. Rather than an ensemble piece in which narrative threads are interwoven, this is a movie swamped in potential narratives. The characters belong to distinct generations and social classes. […] Conversely, the family members’ confrontations make them inseparable. The tension that dominates these relationships is ambiguous: where does conflict end and desire begin? […] Desire is completely absent between the parents but flows in all other directions as a diffuse energy.
[…] La Ciénaga is a grand exercise in ellipsis and the use of off-camera space; scenes begin in the middle and are interrupted before their outcome, and there’s always something that has been moved or eliminated from one shot to the next. […] Martel uses these devices as disorienting strategies. Thus, the story develops in a sly and calculatedly affecting way. She sets up these disturbing situations, then avoids and ignores the potential damage, as if the eventualities had never existed. But we remain unsettled by the accidents that seemed inevitable, and they stay with us as what could have occurred, or what could still occur at any moment. In this world, each action, each gesture is overdetermined by a density that stalks the film from outside it, and that lingers like mud under the surface of quotidian life; each image is only half of what can be seen. Behind the apparently chaotic accumulation of characters and situations, Martel treats filmmaking as a subtractive process and the film as a reduction, though what she excludes remains in the suburbs of the image, troubling what we see.
[…In] La Ciénaga, everyone seems to just yield to misfortune, as if it were predestined. The characters are too lethargic to even attempt to leave their bog; either they will be saved by some improbable miracle from the Virgin or they will remain subject to the capricious logic of chance. Some will be relatively lucky […]. Others will die. While seeming to remain at a standstill, the story is actually gathering narrative intensity, until it explodes.
So it does. Like the rumbling thunder we hear in the distance, these gathering moments of discontent and discomfort will eventually break in a terrible storm.
Back to my point about Martel’s unique female viewpoint. Well, all right, maybe not “unique,” but certainly not common among male filmmakers: her use of interrelationships, of sensation, of the effect of an environment, of all the moving parts in a given family or city or crowd, is tremendous. This immersive approach to filmmaking is one that I seldom experience when I watch something from a white male filmmaker. (I am not sufficiently well-versed in non-Western cinema to offer an opinion on non-white male filmmakers’ immersive success or failure.) But it makes sense that a film like this would come from a woman. Martel certainly doesn’t shy away from the second-rate status of women in Argentina (and the world overall, of course). She shows us how Mecha’s alcoholism is largely fueled by her husband’s philandering and by her inability to escape. She shows us how Tali, reasonable and loving and caring as she is, can’t escape from under the thumb of her domineering husband. That awareness of how terribly confining it is to be a woman is one that, shall we say, only a very few men could understand; and, similarly, just as you develop extra sensitive senses to compensate for one lost sense, a woman like Martel can depict – amazingly effectively – how women are able to take in all details of a situation all at once, since they’re deprived of their agency in that situation.
It’s funny, though. As moving as La Ciénaga is, in its way, it’s full of tremendously unsympathetic characters. The adults, anyway, are almost entirely unsympathetic. Tali is okay. But Mecha, despite a few sympathy points for her awful marriage and her injury, is a truly unpleasant person. She’s verbally abusive to her servants – Isabel especially, for whom it’s possible she feels some sort of sexual jealousy – and about as far from Mother of the Year as Pluto is from the sun. The men in the film may control everything, but they’re almost non-entities in terms of their actual character: drunk, weak, dim-witted, and myopic. It’s the children for whom all possibly sympathy should be saved – because they have to try to raise themselves among all these terrible adults. Of course, some of the children will, understandably, take after those terrible adults. Some may turn out okay. Some will be victims of neglect. When the present generation is decaying – rotting under the weight of its own decadence and stupidity – what will be left for the kids?