Argentine writer-director Lucretia Martel’s feature debut, La Ciénaga (“the swamp”), takes place during an oppressively hot and humid summer as an extended family slogs its way through the disruptions of soggy passion and the heated spasms of existential defeat. It’s a sensual downer, so resolute in its sweaty defeatism as to be nearly comic.
It’s also aggressively “modern,” using the kind of narrative ellipses that have come to signify serious intent. The story line is fractured into tiny curlicues, scenes with no proper ending and sometimes no immediate import accreting, until some general downward progress can be divined. It’s an approach that’s been around for quite awhile, recently reaching some sort of apex in the work of Claire Denis (Nénette et Boni, Beau Travail), and which gives an impression of depth by skimming over cryptic surfaces.
The film’s feeling of being dense with elusive intentions is abetted by its sprawl of characters whose relations to each other only slowly, if ever, come into focus. There are two central characters. Mecha (Graciela Borges), a middle-aged alcoholic, is spending the summer at her seedy country estate with her equally soused husband, three children, various servants and some other unidentified folk. Her cousin Tali (Mercedes Moran), lives in the nearby city of La Ciénaga, with her husband and two (or three) small children. In an opening scene, Mecha falls in a drunken stupor on some broken glass and is rushed to the hospital where she runs into Tali, who has brought her son in to have his leg stitched. This coincidence of accidents suggests not just some genetic clumsiness, but a general absent-mindedness brought about by the endless heat.
Which is why, when we’re shown a group of young boys with rifles taking shots at a cow trapped in a bog near Mecha’s estate, much tension is generated while we wait for someone to accidentally take a bullet. Meanwhile there are other relationships to untangle. Mecha’s daughter Momi is in love with the family’s young Indian servant Isabel, who has a boyfriend called Perro, whom she provokes into beating up Mecha’s oldest son, Jose, who is visiting from Buenos Aires, where he lives with Mercedes, his father’s ex-mistress. This is information that isn’t presented straightforwardly but has to be extracted from little dollops of detail lifted from vying strands of plot. No wonder then that even Jose gets confused, calling Mercedes by his mother’s name at one point.
When Tali and her family visit Mecha at her estate, the woeful cousins spend much time talking about a trip to Bolivia, ostensibly to buy school supplies for their children, but really because they need, literally, a change of atmosphere. It’s a trip you know they aren’t going to take — like the cow in the bog, they ain’t going nowhere and life is taking shots at them. The symbolism may not be subtle but it makes its point. Mecha exudes a heightened sense of betrayal, though the source is never spelled out (her ghastly husband no doubt has something to do with it). The seemingly calmer Tali is burdened with a hapless young son, whom the other children torture with stories of a lurking “rat dog” and whose open-ended fate is one of the film’s more annoying “artistic” flourishes.
In some ways La Ciénaga is very impressive. Martel has the kind of visual sense that can seem studied and improvisational in the space of a single scene, and she knows how to convey the torpor of people living in an area that doesn’t seem as though it were meant for human habitation. But her script, which won an award at Sundance in 1999, is as lethargic as her perspiring ensemble. This is intentional, no doubt, but the narrative that’s been built up from poetic wisps is, even as it continues to appeal to the sophistication of a certain segment of the audience, becoming old hat. We’ve been down this road many times before, and while we may appreciate the well-wrought glimpses of an intriguing time and place, the road itself goes nowhere.
Showing exclusively at the Detroit Film Theatre (inside the DIA, 5200 Woodward Ave., Detroit), Friday through Sunday. Call 313-833-3237.
Richard C. Walls writes about the arts for Metro Times. E-mail him at [email protected].