November 15, 2016
La Cienaga (2001) translates as “The Swamp”, and it is a fetid, decaying film—its forests overgrown and its characters unwashed. For her feature debut, Lucrecia Martel depicts the dissolution of a middle-class Argentine family through sound and set design. To escape the humid city during the summer, they retreat to their country home, a rotting edifice with a filthy leaf-choked pool. With nothing to do, the adults check out on iced red wine while the children tote rifles through an overgrown forest literally shooting their eyes out. The soundtrack is thick with clinking ice, chairs dragging on cement and distant thunder. Martel emphasizes the moments and sounds in-between actions since her characters have very little interest in performing any actions themselves. Instead, they sit, drink and complain. La Cienaga is a blackly funny portrayal of middle-class self-absorption—of a people so wrapped up in themselves they cannot see that their clothes are dirty, the walls are peeling and the pool is a bacterial broth. It is now streaming on FilmStruck and available on DVD and Blu-ray from Criterion.
Martel based the characters in La Ciénaga on the people she knew growing up in the Northern Argentinian city of Salta. She told Haden Guest of BOMB Magazine that “All the stories in La Ciénaga—in all my movies, really—are things that I’ve heard. There are people in my family, in fact, who are very similar to the characters. A great aunt of mine went to see it and when she was leaving she said to her husband, “Gregorio is just like you!” I had made that character thinking of him!” The film does not have a central character, but expands as a series of digressions at “La Mandragora” the country house of Mecha (Graciela Borges) and Gregorio (Martin Adjemian). Both are semi-functional alcoholics who stumble around the environs in a zombie-like daze. In the surreal opening sequence, a drunk Mecha stumbles by the pool and impales herself on a broken tumbler glass. Despite her bleeding out, Gregorio is more concerned with getting another drink, and Mecha that her maid is stealing their sheets. Their children pay them no mind instead turning the grounds into their anything-goes playground. The youngest children roam the knotty, brambly forest like violent colonists shooting at treed dogs and occasionally misfiring on one of their own. Luciano (Sebastian Montagna) loses an eye while the rest get covered in horrendous scratches.
The older children have their own separate adventures—each age group seems to inhabit different solar systems despite living down the hall. Teenager Momi (Sofia Bertolloto), who refuses to wash her hair, has a crush on the young maid Isabel (Andrea Lopez). Isabel is the only character who seems to have a life as she sneaks off to meet her boyfriend Perro (Fabio Villafane), going to parties in town. She is actually integrated into a society larger than the layout of La Mandragora. In a pivotal sequence, the oldest son, Jose (Juan Cruz Bordeu), goes to the same outdoor dance as Isabel and aggressively hits on her. This is an unforgivable invasion of privacy, not only of her personal space, but of the town’s. Jose treats the party as he would Mandragora, as if he owned it. In reprisal, Perro breaks Jose’s nose. An irreparable class border is crossed here, which means only trouble for those on the lower end of the scale.
The movie tries to ape the vibe of a large family living in a small space where one story ends by a sibling barging in and tipping the tale in another direction. Martel described her approach to structure to Haden Guest: “The narrative lines occur in different layers but within the same scene. You can have this character in the foreground, but over here there’s something else going on—an argument between my mom and one of my brothers, for example. In the next scene, that person, who has some problem in school, let’s say, is talking on the phone and maybe my mom is also off-screen. And then here’s another person complaining to my mom, who’s also off-screen. So the themes are superimposed on each other in “layers.” The characters’ movements and the themes get closer and farther away from the camera. The important thing is to define where I’m going to place the focus in order to give one of the layers a place of importance and weave the other things in and out.”
La Cienaga is a powerfully sensorial movie. It almost has a stink to it. Jose is always shirtless and covered in grime, while Momi is perpetually teased for never washing her hair. The summer is a humid one, and Mecha never seems to change out of her nightgown which adheres to her like a mildewed second skin. Gregorio is notable mainly for his hair dye, which has started to stain all of the sheets. Everyone is molting or shedding or disfigured in some way. Mecha’s chest wounds never really heal, Jose’s nose becomes a black-and-blue grotesquerie, while the younger childrens’ faces look like they’ve engaged in nightly knife fights. It is a darkly funny illustration of the family’s dissolution. They are being composted back into the earth.
All of these expanding and contracting stories in the film hide a secret one— a fable-like horror story of an “African Rat” that scares the children early on. A tale of shape-shifting, in which a domestic pet turns out to be a monster that turns on its owners, it takes on totemic meaning by the end of the film. The rat could stand in for the Spanish colonizers or the apathetic middle-class represented by Mecha and Gregorio, a disease devouring its host from within. It is a story that mesmerizes and haunts the children of the film— leading to a scene of abrupt and terrifying violence. Though hidden in the movies’ layered structure in which no character is followed for too long, a little boy fears that the Rat is barking beyond the stucco wall of his tiny backyard plot. This child, a friend of the family of the rotting Mandragora clan, still retains his innocence enough to believe in scary stories. But the Mandragora clan has no belief left in them. The last shot is a repeat of the first, but instead of the parents lazing about the pool it is the children, set to relive the emptied out lives of their parents.