It may be the most horizontal movie I have ever seen. The teeming populace of La Ciénaga (2001), Lucrecia Martel’s beguiling feature debut, spend an inordinate amount of time lying down, usually awake, sometimes several to a bed, sometimes with limbs splayed in various positions. There are amazingly dynamic geometries composed of bodies just trying to get a little rest. The laziness on display in La Ciénaga is charming and funny, and maybe also appalling, emblematic of the liminal space La Ciénaga nimbly inhabits, as though suspended on a high-wire, scathing social commentary on one side, vivid, goofy, impressionistic sounds and images on the other. The film is idiosyncratic, utterly personal, yet riddled with the political, with class critiques suggested only in playful ways. It’s a stunningly confident work. And the great news is that it’s now available from Criterion.
“La Ciénaga.” “The Swamp.” It’s the name Martel gives to the place where she grew up in northwestern Argentina. Part of this film’s allure is also what makes it very difficult to summarize. It is about two families. It is about a summer home, with a pool, and bedrooms, and lots of wine drank with ice, and an adjoining forest where the boys go to play with guns. It is very much about the bourgeoisie, but it’s told from the inside: many of the characters are often drunk (this would make a pretty good double-feature with The Swimmer), and the camerawork is somehow brilliantly choreographed and also stumbling and tipsy too; as rough-and-tumble as the cameras of John Cassavetes, but with a precision Cassavetes’ beloved mania wasn’t designed to take on. The film is autobiographical and the camera is never editorializing. The editing, of course, is another matter. It’s elliptical, teasing. Those boys with the guns: one wants to shoot a dead, muddy cow; another stands in the way; we cut to a shot of the landscape, no figures in sight, and we hear the gunshot, not knowing if someone’s been hit. If Martel made conventional narrative films we’d call her a master manipulator. But there is nothing conventional and little that’s narrative-forward about La Ciénaga.
It begins thusly: following an atonal aria in which a chorus of the world’s noisiest, cheapest-looking lawn chairs are dragged across tile, one of our two matriarchs, totally stinko, collapses, cutting herself badly. Her daughter comes to pull pieces of glass from her chest. A lazy assessment of La Ciénaga might say that nothing happens, but the film’s gambit rests in the opposite camp: everything happens, though it happens in fragments, in shards, with scenes that start halfway-in and end before they’re resolved; with more characters—family, friends and servants, victims of racial slurs—than we can be expected to keep track of. Martel is focused on immersing us in this world and that’s exactly what she’s so devastatingly good at. The film is so funny—the blitzed characters getting so animated about the idea of shipping for school supplies in Bolivia—the dialogue so curious, the images so transfixing, we might forgot that this is also an oblique indictment of a culture of waste and sloth, snobbery and unjust disparity, of tackiness and unchecked Catholic neurosis. All these ingredients will come into play in Martel’s subsequent films, The Holy Girl (2004) and The Headless Woman (2008), each of which feature fewer characters, or at least feature central characters, and something close to what we might call a storyline. Paragons of the New Argentine Cinema, they feel sprung from the same swamp yet each are inventive, provocative variations. Seeing La Ciénaga reminds us of how vast Martel’s powers are—and how long we’ve had to wait for more.