Stuck in the Mud:
In the films of Lucrecia Martel, all is not for the best. Each begins with some unpleasant incident, some bacterial episode, that seemingly contaminates the whole stream of the story. There follows ongoing unease for the viewer, and no foreseeable escape for the characters; we’re all stuck in the mess together. The first film opens with a drunken lady by a pool, falling chest-first onto the shards of a wine glass she’s just dropped; she’s rushed off to a medical clinic for stitches, and ends up having her stomach pumped. In the second, a teenage girl stands in a city crowd, watching a bizarre musical performance; a doctor comes along, presses himself against her from behind, then disappears. With the most recent film, the bad start is a possible one, and elevated to the possibly tragic: a dentist runs over something with her car, something sizable she thinks to have been alive, and doesn’t get out to see what it is. ‘Look at the extreme vileness,’ an incongruously beautiful woman sings in one of the films, as if commenting on all of them, ‘that is singing like this today’.
Martel is a young Argentine director whose work has been uncannily sure from the beginning. It was on the basis of that first feature, La ciénaga (The Swamp, 2001) that Pedro Almodóvar signed on to co-produce The Holy Girl (La niña santa, 2004), and then The Headless Woman (La mujer sin cabeza, 2008). Though these films have won awards and much praise within the world of cinema, one senses a need on the part of fans to communicate their achievement more broadly. This is partly because, for all their considerable technical appeal (including their use of sound – Martel says she conceives of it before the images), it is the tales that matter, and these tales are fascinating beasts that reward close attention.
La ciénaga concerns two related families passing a hot summer in the northwestern province of Salta, where all the films are set. The adults recline by a rank pool, preoccupied with drink, while kids of various ages play, flirt, and fight with one other, or go out hunting on their own. In the midst of this commotion, a sort of spectre emerges in the form of a conversation two mothers have about taking a car trip through the mountains to Bolivia , so as to buy cheaper school supplies for the year ahead. For no particular reason, it just seems like a stupid idea in which someone or everyone involved must die. Yet as the plan is finally dropped, the atmosphere of imminent disaster remains. You know at least one has to occur, because there are just too many lining up to happen.
The Holy Girl is a similarly crowded and frenetic movie in style, one in which an old hotel virtually assumes the role of main character. The story covers a week-long medical conference held there, and involves waiting around for a few different scandals to come to a head or not. Chief among them is the business between Amalia (María Alche), the heroine of the title, and Dr Jano (Carlos Belloso), the man who felt her up in the crowd. Amalia becomes fixated on the married doctor and, in a lively paradox, feels herself called to save him from sin. Jano is speaking at the hotel where Amalia lives, but her beautiful mother Helena (Mercedes Morán) runs it, and has her own designs. It might all be a passing fever for the girl, but the infatuation, which serves as an outlet for her precocious mind and religious sense, could mark a dark transformation. Near the end of the film we see the initial street performer – his quirky, spooky music played by conducting his hands in the air above a Theremin – bewitching adults in the hotel. The spirit, as it were, moves in.
The Headless Woman is a quieter movie than its predecessors, and different in focusing more exclusively on a single character. Even so, as in all the films, its trouble exists as a kind of communal presence. Did I say the early incidents were like bacteria contaminating water? That is not solely true, for in a way the events reflect what is already latent in the characters, working in the manner of X-rays. It’s an open question, for instance, whether the headless woman wasn’t always headless, or isn’t surrounded by other headless people, her family who live in a bubble of privilege, and instinctively work to cover up the accident. (Whatever may have happened in it – you can tell, I think, though the truth is not so much the point for the protagonist as her behavior in doubt.) In one scene, her husband and cousin get on the phone to a doctor friend to inquire about hospital inpatients. The call is ostensibly about checking facts – perhaps what she saw in her rear-view mirror was a dog, not an Indian child who has gone missing – but the human picture we observe, the unnatural calm of the men, the shadows, all that is not being said, whisper differently, making it a noir moment rich with conspiracy. The ensuing silences have a slightly allegorical quality, hinting at bourgeois acquiescence or willful blindness to other "disappearances," those of Argentina's Dirty War.
Martel’s characters flit in and out of harm’s shadow as a matter of course. The interest is not in danger as shock value, but in its regular promise and proximity, in the sights and sounds that surround its unfolding. (Though highly distorted, aspects of this world are scrupulously exacting in their naturalism.) Teenage Joaquín (Diego Baenas) in La ciénaga has a glass eye; as he hunts throughout the movie, you wonder when he’ll lose the other. At one point he hears rustling in the bushes and raises his rifle: it’s his sister Momi (Sofia Bertolotto) pulling herself through a thicket. The boy’s gun doesn’t immediately descend upon recognition though, and after it does, he actually raises it again: what is he seeing or thinking? It’s a quick and complex moment, like so many in these films, that invites rewatching again and again to know what your eyes have really seen. Soon after, the kids gather before a bull stuck in the swamp. One of the youngest starts to walk out to it, while rifles are cocked behind him. Will they shoot with him so near? Momi raises her t-shirt to her mouth, and bites down on her lips.
Little passing moments like the above, compacted of the frightening and the mundane, help create the tense moods that are sustained throughout. While Amalia and her friend do homework in The Holy Girl, a naked man falls from the balcony above and survives. ‘It’s a miracle’, she tells her unfazed mother, and the incident is dropped. Giant plant pots, stacked as high as if on top of a towering beanstalk, threaten to fall on people in a gardening store in The Headless Woman. In the same movie, a cringe-worthy detail involves one of the many servants who swirl around the heroine Verónica (María Onetto), living reminders of her guilt. After everyone else leaves the kitchen at the end of a scene, a child walks over to the counter and takes a sip from a glass of water: we know the glass to have just been used by a girl with hepatitis. These apparent digressions, part of Martel’s unconventional, composite style of storytelling – often quick-moving to the point of fragmentation, with many links between events and characters spelled out indirectly, if at all – amplify the element of horror so nicely signaled in the films’ titles.
If the characters aren’t always ensnared in some dance of death, then they’re often busy with a dance of folly. The foolishness of non-Indian adults is shown with subtlety. This is most entertainingly true of Helena in The Holy Girl. Helena and her brother Freddy take care of little in the hotel, leaving things to an overworked native woman called Mirta (Marta Lubos). Moran has observed that Helena is the sort of person who, in any situation, is always thinking of some little game she is trying to effect. If memory serves, Gore Vidal writes of a relative who ‘had perfected the art of listening with an air of attention’: the same applies to some of Martel’s creations, who speak with pointed obliqueness too, with an air of communication. ‘When I tell you to listen, you have to listen’, a mother commands her daughter in The Headless Woman. Not listen all the time, because that might lead you to contradict me, just when I tell you to; and really not to listen, only to do what I say. Possibly such ways of life are wearing. When the alcoholic matriarch Mecha (Garciela Borges) of La ciénaga takes to her bed, you suspect that some mystery of her extreme nature is responsible, more so than any accident. A fear is voiced that she may remain there, like her mother did, for decades until death. Sisters in The Headless Woman likewise wonder if everyone in their family must finally go crazy like their elderly aunt, who is said to have ratty hair, and sees visions.
While it may be oversimplifying things to say that the characters of these separate films might have been born of the same bloodline, it is hard to underestimate how closely the subjects are related to one another. Martel has a novel take on incest, dramatising it as a form of arrested development and narcissism. The headless woman’s brother likes to give her lingering kisses, and Freddy in The Holy Girl sometimes appears suspiciously like a husband. Sardonically, Martel has likened the physical act of filming on location, with the mass of invasive equipment, to the presence of a tumour; to which her interlocutor added, it is also like that of an octopus, its tentacles spreading out over an area. This image of entanglement seems good in more ways than one.
Among the hardest people to pick apart and identify are the kids. This is partly because there are oodles of them and partly, one senses, because Martel takes pleasure in presenting them as part of her overheated natural landscape; J. Hoberman has excellently described them as ‘hanging around like ripe fruit’. Another thing they resemble is animals. The children in La ciénaga lay about on one another like dogs, while their actual dogs lay on them. A fable relayed in the movie, about a carnivorous rat that is mistaken for a dog, gives the resemblance a comically scary aspect. And whoever has seen The Holy Girl is unlikely to forget the image of Amalia and her friend swimming at angles around the pool on their backs, side by side as easily as two tadpoles. Not for nothing has Martel compared her camera’s view to that of an animal or a ten-year-old child. Its understanding of events seems innocent, tantalisingly limited: because they are so oblique, pointed conversations seem to go slightly over its head. Indeed, to capture everything in this macabre human comedy one would need to be less a fly on the wall, than many flies on many walls, or many kids under many beds.
The children go in for much the same things as the adults, though with somewhat more vibrancy and daring. After a sexually charged chase and wrestle, one fairly grown cousin in La ciénaga walks in on another while showering; without saying anything, he sticks his clay-covered leg in the tub to wash it off: she enfolds herself in the curtain, and tells him to get out in the most gentle of murmurs, as though inviting him in. Turning cartwheels into big ditches, running across busy roads and much more, these youths are no less on the brink of some kind of chaos than the adults, but they would seem to be having a better time of it moment to moment.
The best people in Martel’s world, finally, seem doomed to live in the shadows, or to become shadows themselves. This is true not only of the Indians who tend to be poorly used by their employers. The intelligent Amalia falls ill and grows pale; the camera blurs her image, so that she starts to look distinctively ghost-like as she stalks her man around the hotel. In the pool with his kids, she holds her head underwater until they have counted to eighty-five; she surfaces, looks at him with a devious smile, and doesn’t visibly exhale. Is she still of this world? A similar question can be asked of Veronica, who wants to address her failure to act in the end, but whose whole existence by that point has grown too cloudy.
There is a point in The Holy Girl where Amalia walks in on Helena sleeping. In perfect silence, the girl lowers her hand toward her mother’s back, but stops short of touching it, suspending it there. The mother wakes with a start, as though she could see this hand, or hear it, or feel it like a magnet. One pictures Martel as like this pair. One waits for her new movies, keen to see what brilliant, dark dream she will rear into life next.
from Issue 1: Histories
© James Guida and LOLA 2011.
Cannot be reprinted without permission of the author and editors.