Criterion Month – Decay and Social Class in ‘La Ciénaga’

Lucrecia Martel, the Argentine film director, screenwriter and producer, made a big splash with her 2001 debut feature La Ciénaga (The Swamp) about a bourgeois extended family spending the summer together in a decrepit vacation home. Due to the fact that Martel was recently named president of the jury at this year’s Venice Film Festival (being only the seventh woman in the festival’s history), it might be time to revisit her debut, which helped establish her as a vital voice in Argentine cinema and the ‘New Argentine Cinema’ movement that exploded in the late 1990s and early 2000s.

Do we really need to understand everything we see in films? That is one of the questions I was confronted with after watching La Ciénaga. I don’t think we have to understand everything in film and I don’t think we should aim for that in our experiences. However, I do think it’s easy to get stuck in our ordinary routines so that when something as rule-breaking as La Ciénaga comes around it might initially feel confusing. Even though I had initial troubles with figuring the film out, I couldn’t stop thinking about it, and that should mean something.

It doesn’t take long until viewers are aware of what they’re about to see isn’t anything remotely described as “following the norm.” If Martel held a rule book of everything a film should be according to the norm and how narratives should be portrayed in a conventional film according to popular belief, she most likely threw it out of the window – maybe even several windows. There aren’t any rules in La Ciénaga; neither within the cinematic universe nor by Martel behind the work.

The film is set in Martel’s hometown of Salta, a place in the northern part of Argentina not too far away from the Bolivian border. Even though there isn’t too much of a storyline, there is one crucial incident that brings the two families together. We’re quickly introduced to a group of middle-aged people lounging about near a swimming pool – once a symbol of their upper-class status but now an uninviting pool filled with filthy water. The matriarch Mecha (Graciela Borges) gets up and starts collecting the empty glasses from her company. Suddenly she trips while carrying one too many glasses and ends up cutting herself badly. This is a moment that in any other film would cause a dramatic aftermath. In La Ciénaga however, no one seems to care. The adults seem to be stuck in their zombie-like-state-of-mind and it’s hard as a viewer to figure out if they are too drunk to even notice the accident or if they simply are too selfish to move. Mecha’s daughter Momi (Sofia Bertolotto) and the family’s maid Isabel (Andrea López) eventually notice the accident and offer to help. This accident leads to Mecha’s encounter with her cousin Tali (Mercedes Morán), who lives in a nearby town with her husband Rafael (Daniel Valenzuela) and their four young children. Besides her daughters, Mecha also has an adult son who travels to see her after the accident. These two big families end up spending the summer together, for better and worse, and their fates begin to interlock as the film unravels.

It isn’t a secret that a more straightforward narrative would have been much more efficient and easier for viewers to follow. However, in La Ciénaga, nothing is really efficient but rather filled with wasted time, so therefore the chosen structure seems fitting. The adults barely seem to move; they move from chair to chair, from bed to bed. They smoke, drink and complain all day long waiting for something to happen. Are they waiting for death to relieve them from their stagnate life filled with boredom and degradation? It’s hard to tell. They all seem to be simultaneously afraid of change and of things never changing. The characters we meet in the film were obviously once rich, but are now living in the ruins of their own previous luxurious world. Their country estate isn’t what it used to be, along with the swimming pool. 

Having a private pool is usually a symbol of wealth; it’s something that clearly separates the rich from the poor. Rich people don’t have to use a communal pool; they possess their own water that belongs to them and them alone. It’s almost egotistical to own water only used for fun when others might be desperate for clean steady water flow to survive. However, things have changed and the swimming pool in La Ciénaga is now filled with green-coloured water. The pool isn’t a sign of wealth anymore but rather a symbol of the family’s current decline of their previous upper-class status. It’s no longer inviting; it’s no longer anything to brag about. Argentina went through several changes during the turn of the century and the changes that happened were devastating with most people affected by the rapid changes in the economy that took place around that time – something that is clearly portrayed in La Ciénaga. In this film, there doesn’t seem to be anything left to do for our characters other than to drink into oblivion.

There are also obvious cases of racism toward indigenous people in La Ciénaga, especially against the household maid Isabel who is visibly treated as “the Other.” Even though the family behaves more or less dismissively toward Isabel, they’re all highly dependent on her. Isabel lives close to the family and despite the fact that there is intimacy shared; she is never truly seen as one of “them” or one in the family. At the beginning of the film, we see Mecha’s daughter Momi sharing a bed with Isabel. “Thank you God for giving me Isabel,” says Momi out loud – hinting that there might be more than solely friendship in mind from Momi’s end. Mecha, however, is certain that Isabel is lazy and steals the family’s towels. Therefore, when Isabel brings towels to help stop the blood after Mecha’s accident, Mecha simply utters, “So that’s where the towels went”.

Martel’s debut is filled with an underlying feeling of isolation. The final result is a pessimistic portrayal of the decline of an Argentinian upper-middle-class family without much hope left. While the adults in La Ciénaga are passive and seem to always be on the verge of exhaustion due to high alcohol intake and the paralysing heat, the children have almost animal-like energy. They run in and out of houses, get dirty and stay dirty. They all resemble the dogs that are always present in the film; while dogs lay on top of humans and close to other dogs; so do the humans with other humans. The bodies seen in La Ciénaga are often as decaying as the family’s social status – the bodies are covered with cuts, bruises and dirt. Joaquín (Diego Baenas) only has one eye and José (Juan Cruz Bordeu) is punched badly in the nose – they are, however, the lucky ones, and others might not be as lucky as them by the end of the film.

Even though I’m miles away from Argentina, I can almost feel the thick air and humidity through the screen. However, the natural surroundings portrayed in La Ciénaga are neither pleasant nor welcoming. Almost every moment in La Ciénaga feels like it’s the moment before something awful is going to happen. It’s a terrible feeling you can’t shake off since the film drags you into its swamp- whether you want it or not. At one point, when the young boys are running around with their rifles in the mountains, one of the boys ends up in front of the rifle. There is a cut and we see a distant image of the mountains and hear a gunshot and it’s impossible to not think that the young boy has been shot. Later we see teenagers try to catch fish with the help of the erratic strikes of their machetes. Along with this feeling of unease, there is also some incestuous subtext not fully explored. When José wrestles with Verónica (Leonora Balcarce) it’s hard to tell whether it’s just innocent play between two siblings or if it’s a more daring sexual impulse reminiscent of animals. This feeling is just further heightened later when José walks in on Verónica when she is showering. Without saying a word, he sticks in his clay-covered leg in the bathtub to wash it off while she enfolds herself in the shower curtain telling him to leave in an ambiguous way that doesn’t sound like a command. These instances poise two overwhelmingly present questions I had during the film: how long until someone gets hurt and how long until someone goes too far?

Before Mecha hurts herself in the beginning, there’s a peculiar scene taking place. We see these older people getting up and dragging their lounge chairs to a new spot in the sun, each with a glass of alcohol in their hands. Besides the jarring sound of the chairs against the hard concrete (reminiscent of nails against a blackboard), the sequence also put an emphasis on bodies. Older bodies are usually not the ones being on display in films, but in this scene we see fat, wrinkles and other things that are often seen as imperfections by the popular standard of beauty. Martel focuses her camera on these almost naked bodies and their sagging flesh in a close-up as they slowly drag their chairs in unison creating a terribly uncomfortable sound. At the end of the film, a similar if not the same, sound is revisited. It ties the film’s beginning and end together nicely, but has anything really changed? Nothing is solved, no resolutions are to be seen, there are new conflicts and the only thing that has changed is that summer has passed. By the end, I was glad to leave these characters and their draining world behind me – even though I’m not going to forget them anytime soon. Martel’s camerawork is disturbingly intimate and as a viewer, I often felt like I was invading the family’s privacy – which in itself is complex since the family themselves have very little privacy. Martel’s shots are claustrophobic. There are simply too many people in the frame, too many sweaty intertwining bodies, and not enough space to breathe – for either the characters in La Ciénaga or for its viewers.

 

You can find La Ciénaga on Criterion here. You can also watch it on the Criterion Channel

 

by Rebecca Rosen

Rebecca Rosen has studied film for several years at university in Sweden where she currently resides. Besides film, she has also studied television and is currently deepening her knowledge of gender studies. When she isn’t writing or talking about all things film, she enjoys getting lost in foreign cities, playing video games and watching German football. Besides being a lover of Twin Peaks (both the band and TV series), she knows Wayne’s World 2 off by heart and will forever ugly cry to Call Me By Your Name. She’s still contemplating about the impossible question regarding what her favourite film is ever since a stranger asked her 10 years ago. She still hasn’t seen Titanic. Share you favourite films with her on her Twitter and Instagram.

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