As Lucrecia Martel demonstrates in La Ciénaga (The Swamp), there is more twisted banal horror and caustic humour to be discovered in the forms of personal narrative than found within the boundaries of the horror genre itself. La Ciénaga is a horror film in a way, though it is as inscrutable as the work of Claire Denis, as biting as that of Luis Buñuel, and as rich and unmistakably stamped with an undercurrent of discomfort as Martel’s own films La Niña Santa (The Holy Girl, 2004) and La Mujer sin Cabeza (The Headless Woman, 2008). Loosely plotted, La Ciénaga observes a somewhat wealthy extended family spending a summer cramped together in an isolated, wet, decaying mansion in a provincial town in the provinces. The adults are frequently motionless, often immobilised in an alcoholic stupor beside a filthy, brackish swimming pool, filled with green-tinged water and debris, where they smoke, complain, and seemingly wait for death to relieve them of their boredom. As Martel commented in an interview with Chris Wisniewski,
I don’t like swimming pools, because I have the feeling that they are always dirty, like an infection. At the same time, in Argentina, there are not many public swimming pools, so I think that the idea of having a cube of water just for a few people is like having a slave – to think that all of this water belongs to you as your property. I like to shoot in swimming pools, though, because it’s like a room, below the level of the ground, full of water. There are many similarities between the behavior of a body inside a swimming pool and out of the pool. Both are in an elastic space. It’s fluid. The sound outside and the waves inside the pool both touch you in the same way. I think there are a lot of similarities in perception – between being in a pool and being in the world. (1)
The children are largely left to fend for themselves. Filmed in a modern yet neo-realist style, the kids spend most of their time lying around in bed, redolent of sweat and Catholic repression, in an atmosphere of boredom, playfulness and budding adolescent sexuality. This stifling, wet, swamp-like mise-en-abyme of brooding provincial family life is loosely based on Martel’s own experience. It is her first feature film, and it is in some ways reminiscent of Jane Campion’s own loosely auto-ethnographical family-as-horror film, Sweetie (1989).
Both films foreground ominous natural sound, a brooding familial environment of decay, and the horror of the family: a breeding ground of incest, alcohol, danger, desperation, isolation and death. As Oscar Jubis noted,
[La Ciénaga] is an attempt on the part of its maker to transcend her family history and heal the damage done by the traumas of provincial rearing. Lucrecia Martel did not leave [her home] simply so that she could learn how to make movies. She left for Buenos Aires so she could make movies that saved her sanity. (2)
Martel’s handheld camerawork is almost too intimate, too frank, without mercy on her subjects. The cinematography in La Ciénaga, in combination with an obtrusive use of a natural soundscape, crushes the viewer with an unrelenting sense of drowning and images of decay. The sounds of omnipresent thunderstorms, and the visuals of the wet, thick rainforest, along with the dominating mountainsides, offer little in the way of respite from this the atmospherically rendered space of invaded privacy. As viewers, we feel we are invading the privacy of the family, who themselves have precious little privacy. The shots are claustrophobic and cluttered; there are simply too many people in the frame, too many sweaty bodies, and not enough space to breathe.
This is jarring in the opening sequence, in which the camera frames small sections of bathing suited bodies; little landscapes of the sagging flesh of middle-aged women, as they drag metal chairs toward a green, fetid pool. The uncomfortably loud sound of the chairs is an abrasive device that will repeat at the end of the film, where nothing is solved, no resolutions have been made, conflicts have risen, and only the summer has passed. In this opening shot, the wasted adults barely even acknowledge one another’s presence; they are more intent on trying to move their chairs while not spilling their drinks than being interested in one another. The isolation of the family, along with the gothic atmosphere, builds unresolved tensions and discomforts.
For a family vacation, there is little in the way of revelry. The matriarchal figures, Mecha (Graciela Borges), an alcoholic who rarely removes her sunglasses, and her cousin Tali (Mercedes Moran) more or less preside over the two families. But they are sloth-like, immobilised and trapped by the presence of too much privilege, too much rain, and too many sounds from the landscape. This is expressed through the incessant chirping of cicadas, the ever-present brackish water of the pool, and the wetness in the air, which is palpable. When Mecha drops a glass and cuts herself (nearly dying from loss of blood) as she falls near the pool, she momentarily introduces a potentially dramatic element. But the camera moves overhead to observe how the sloth-like adults in their patio lounge chairs fail to muster any effort to help her. The children and the maid eventually come to her aid, but the adults are too drunk and too selfish to move. Mecha and her family are stuck in the mire of the provincial family, much like the steer found and taunted by the children, drowning in the wet swamp, and dying a slow death.
Mecha’s husband, Gregorio (Martín Adjemián), is of no use to anyone but himself, and even in this respect, his agency is limited. He is weirdly obsessed with hair products, as well as his vanity. In an attempt to recapture his lost youth, he fuels his dreamlike existence with copious amounts of alcohol. In fact, in the absence of anything else to hold onto, all the characters develop strange obsessions and fascinations. One of the older boys fixates sexually on the indigenous and abused maid, Isabel (Andrea Lopez), who is unfairly accused of theft. One of the daughters is also pathologically obsessed with Isabel. The relationship between brother and sister is suffused with an incestuous subtext. The children are fascinated with a news story of a woman who claims to have witnessed a vision of the Virgin Mary.
The often unwashed and filthy children manage to amuse themselves with ghost stories about a dog who is a phantom “rat-dog” – or a killing machine – a fantastical story that enraptures the youngest children. But frustratingly enough, as Martel notes in her “Director’s Statement” included in the American DVD release of the film,
rather than building up to a dramatic crescendo, the film proceeds through an accumulation of innocuous situations, which often lead to nothing, but sometimes end fatally […] provincialism plays a key role in the film. In Buenos Aires, people take a modern, direct approach to dealing with life’s problems. In the provinces, however, people tend to tell long, complicated, and often absurd anecdotes in a plea for compassion and in an effort to overcome fear. (3)
Martel makes difficult films that dispense with narrative convention. Like Denis, Buñuel and early Campion, Martel respects the audience and makes it work hard to figure out the narrative. Martel admits that in her work, “there are no hidden truth[s] to be found by the heroes, nor is there any link between cause and effect”. Nor is there an escape into nature, as Martel refuses “to accept the commonly held romantic idea that nature rhymes with harmony”. In fact, “all the characters in La Ciénaga feel extremely uneasy in the presence of nature. I wanted to film landscapes that had no picturesque qualities. The natural surroundings are neither pleasant nor welcoming”.
Disharmony instead is at the centre of the Gothic, fetid world of La Ciénaga. Martel feels bourgeois Argentina is “a society that lives vaguely hoping that nothing will ever change, and in terror of everything repeating itself indefinitely”. Or, as Martel puts it, “La Ciénaga is permeated by a feeling of constant unease. The film depicts a society that has lost its traditions but which cannot afford the security that could make up for it”. This is the life that Martel and her characters inhabit; a domain of perpetual unease and contestation, in which nothing can be taken for granted, and nothing is as it seems.
- Chris Wisniewski, “When Worlds Collide: An Interview with Lucrecia Martel”, Reverse Shot no. 25, 2008: http://reverseshot.com/article/interview_lucrecia_martel.
- Oscar Jubis, The Films of Lucrecia Martel: The Salta Trilogy, VDM Verlag Dr. Müller, Berlin, 2010, pp. 47-48.
- Lucrecia Martel, “Directors Commentary”, La Ciénaga, Home Vision Entertainment DVD, USA, 2005. All subsequent Martel quotes are taken from this source.
La Ciénaga/The Swamp (2001 Argentina 103 mins)
Prod Co: 4k Films/Wanda Visión S.A./Code Red/Cuatro Cabezas/TS Productions Prod: Lita Stantic Dir, Scr: Lucrecia Martel Phot: Hugo Colace Ed: Santiago Ricci Prod Des: Graciela Oderigo
Cast: Mercedes Morán, Graciela Borges, Martín Adjemián, Leonora Balcarce, Silvia Baylé, Sofia Bertolotto