La Ciénaga: What’s Outside the Frame

On Film / Essays — Jan 26, 2015
La Cienaga

Translation by Anna Thorngate

The opening of La Ciénaga (2001) feels like a mistake. A storm appearing from behind the mountains, a group of people around a putrid swimming pool, heat, pampered comfort, a domestic accident: none of it gives us the kind of information we expect. Where are we? Who are these characters? What’s going on? No screenwriting manual would recommend introducing a film this way. And in fact, when developing this project, her first feature, Lucrecia Martel was frequently advised to focus on just one or two characters, choose a plotline, and give her film a more sharply defined subject.

There are too many characters in La Ciénaga (The Swamp, the name Martel gives to her fictionalized version of her hometown), and their relationships remain confusing even after we’ve finally managed to identify their family connections. It is difficult to tell what is central and what is secondary in each image, as the story avoids emphasizing any one situation over another. But that is precisely what is so distinctive about this stunning movie. Promiscuity, confusion, uncertainty: what the film relates is contained in the way it relates it. Fortunately, the filmmaker ignored the advice that would have given her story a straightforward narrative line and clearly delineated hierarchies of conflict and characters. Doubtless, this would have resulted in a more efficient film. But La Ciénaga is precisely a movie about unproductive pursuits, wasted time, the dissipation of energy, inactivity. Its characters are stuck in a bog, and not one of them seems to notice they’re sinking without hope of rescue.

Mecha has suffered a minor accident, and while she recuperates at her house in the country, her friend or relation Tali (“almost a cousin,” Mecha calls her) and her family come to visit from the city of La Ciénaga. The two families get reacquainted, the children come and go, and a liveliness seizes the decrepit estate. The boys devote themselves to hunting in the hills, and the girls chat by the pool. Meanwhile, the women plan an excursion to Bolivia, with the pretext of shopping for school supplies. The two families are headed by very different sets of parents. Mecha rules her household; Gregorio, her husband, is incapable of doing anything, barely even complaining when she refuses to continue sharing a bed with him. Tali, on the contrary, is a submissive and obedient wife, while Rafael embodies the role of loving husband and protective father—perhaps excessively so, as he maintains such complete control that he leaves no space for his wife to move in. One husband has nothing to say, and the other is not interested in listening, but both women are trapped within the same patriarchal system (significantly, all the protagonists in Martel’s work are female). The director treated the subjugation of women more brutally and explicitly in the 1995 short film Rey muerto; the commentary may be subtler in La Ciénaga, but the tension between the genders is no less violent. There’s no escape for the two women: Tali will never have the courage to confront her husband, and Mecha will end up never leaving her bed, just as her mother did.

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. Mecha’s family behaves dismissively toward its household staff but is highly dependent on them. The servants are collas—Indians, others. They live among the family, participating in their intimacy but not truly mixed; everything they share only emphasizes their separateness. Conversely, the family members’ confrontations make them inseparable. The tension that dominates these relationships is ambiguous: where does conflict end and desire begin? When José wrestles with Verónica, when she chases him, we can’t tell whether this is the innocent play of siblings or a daring sensual impulse. The family tends to gather around Mecha’s bed, and nobody seems to sleep in their own room. Desire is completely absent between the parents but flows in all other directions as a diffuse energy.

The family home is called La Mandrágora (The Mandrake), after a plant that was historically used as both anesthetic and aphrodisiac. Stupefied by alcohol and heat, the adults are always on the verge of exhaustion; the children, on the other hand, overflow with energy, crashing into one another, falling down and hurting themselves. The characters—the smallest ones most of all—are constantly courting disaster but never seem to notice the risk. At one point, when the boys are playing with their rifles in the mountains, Luciano steps into the line of fire. There is a cut, and we immediately see a distant image of the mountains and hear a gun; how could we think anything but that he has been shot? Later, the children swim at a dam and try to catch fish with violent, erratic strikes of their machetes. How long can it be before someone gets hurt?

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. When Momi jumps into the pool, the other children come to the edge but can’t see anything in the murky water. Time passes, and the shot lingers on the still surface. Then there is a gap in time, and we see the children lounging by the pool, telling stories. It takes us a while to notice that Momi is there too, as the camera keeps her outside the frame at first. 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 this approach, sound is never a redundant accompaniment to what’s on-screen. Few contemporary filmmakers have explored the possibilities of that element of filmmaking as expressively. Ice cubes tinkling in a glass, chairs being dragged across the floor, thunder, gunshots: sounds give the images a disturbing dimensionality. The director often doesn’t storyboard, but she always plots out her soundscape before shooting: “It is sound that drives me,” she has said. “Image is a way of avoiding something that I want to hear but not to see.” What is visible is there to avoid showing something else. Without calling this a horror film, we can say that La Ciénaga uses the genre mechanisms that foreshadow the emergence of the monstrous. Something terrible waits crouched outside the frame, and, at any moment, catastrophe could burst in.

In Martel’s cinema, for something to happen it must be precipitated by a detonation that shatters daily life; the absence of events and the outbreak of disaster are in perpetual counterpoint. In The Holy Girl (2004), the violent disruption takes the form of an incident of sexual harassment that the victim interprets as a sacred call for her to save the man who has sinned against her. In The Headless Woman (2008), it shows up as a possibly tragic car accident and the bewildering drift of days that follows it. Martel’s films are riddled with accidents. But 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—like José, who is only punched in the nose, or Joaquin, who just loses an eye. Others will die. While seeming to remain at a standstill, the story is actually gathering narrative intensity, until it explodes.

Death is unjust and inopportune. It’s absurd. Martel has created her own version of a world without God, because what God would dare to defend his reign over a universe where a child could die in an incomprehensible accident? The filmmaker has said:

I speak of the Catholic religion, which is mine, because it’s where I learned a way of thinking. A system of thought that defines a “nature” of things and a meaning for existence. A system that trusts that God has arranged everything according to a plan, has organized things to the end. But when, by different paths, people come to the conclusion that such an architect doesn’t exist, at least in terms of a “divine will,” the world is revealed in its mystery, in its unjustified existence. One inevitably feels a certain sense of abandonment, which is in no way sad or paralyzing but rather immense and marvelous. And it is divine abandonment, the abandoning of creatures to their luck, about which I’ve preferred to develop my own way of thinking.

At the end of the film, Momi makes a pilgrimage to a site where the Virgin is said to have appeared, and experiences a vision. But it is a dark one, because what she discovers is that she cannot access revelation. Perhaps she is the only one able to recognize that salvation doesn’t come from outside. If the other characters understood that, they could begin to save themselves. But instead they remain slowly sinking, waiting for some miracle to pull them toward a different life.

If Martel’s project has by now emerged as a strongly political one, it is because she sees the sense of dread that pervades her films and the apathy of her characters as observed social reality. That commitment to a fresh approach to realism is one she shares with a generation of Argentine directors. In the early 1990s, several new film schools opened in Argentina, and a crop of young students, including Martel, began studying cinema history and filmmaking. At the same time, they were getting a political education in the streets: this was a decade characterized by social unrest over the so-called modernization of privatization and free-market liberalization, during which the corrupt Carlos Menem administration destroyed industries, increased unemployment, and deepened poverty. The instability required new film production strategies and new aesthetic approaches, and Martel and her fellow young directors, despite the financial difficulty of getting films made at all, rose to the challenge, bringing about the deep renewal of the national industry known as the New Argentine Cinema. Their films can be seen as seismographic records of the serial devastations inflicted on their nation by the military dictatorship of the seventies, the socioeconomic crisis of the eighties, and the savage neoliberalism of the nineties.

Reacting against earlier Argentine cinema (solemn, conventional, conformist), filmmakers like Martel, Martín Rejtman, Pablo Trapero, Adrián Caetano, and Lisandro Alonso, each in their own way, recorded with rigor, delicacy, and imagination the way the plates of their society resettled after each new tremor. Politics may not be explicitly at the forefront of their films, but it is omnipresent in them, informing their characters’ relationships and behavior. In La Ciénaga, one of the highest achievements of the movement, it is manifest in the despairing, sinking world the characters inhabit: the run-down house, the lassitude of the adults, the scars of the children, the class prejudice, the silent oppression of women. The old traditions are worn out, but the future appears to be an endless plateau of cynicism and stagnation.

In late 2001, a fresh political crisis exploded in the country when further economic restrictions enacted by a new administration fueled a spontaneous uprising. Made just before this, Martel’s film, with the restrained violence that imbues its performances and dialogue, became a rare expression of an extremely troubled moment in the nation’s recent history. It is a masterpiece of singular maturity, evincing none of the missteps that often plague first works; there’s no clumsiness or vacillation or insecurity in these images. La Ciénaga announces a body of work that, from the beginning, has radiated a rare perfection.

The translator is indebted to Valeria Rotella for her assistance.