Thursday, September 24, 2009

La Cienaga

(Lucrecia Martel, Argentina, 2001)

Grating and obtuse, La Cienaga is a mostly self-conscious wallowing in the muck of Art-cinema cliches and conventions, which, having been left to rot in the quagmire of hack academia and the backwoods of festival country, have festered and grown into hulking, incoherent monsters. I'm beginning to have serious doubts about Martel's filmmaking, and am in the slow, agonizing process of reviewing and reconsidering some of my previous thoughts on her films.

Okay, that's excessive. But it is faithful to my initial reaction, which was one of intense irritation and disappointment. I don't think Martel is a snowball artist, but what is one to make of La Cienaga, which leaves no lasting impression save some residual boredom and bemusement?

Often in early films, the cards are on the table but the rules are still fuzzy; it can be absolutely exhilarating to discover a filmmaker in the process of discovery. My own first encounter with Martel was well after her development and refinement, and I thought she had landed in a delectable territory of allusiveness and quirky nuance, all frosted with a thick layer of existential malaise. But that film, and the one previous to it (The Holy Girl) seemed to be uncertain and even foundering when it came to actual substance - it could be discerned even then that the sensations produced by Martel were not enough to warrant her lack of narrative or philosophical rigor.

Here, the craft is not so hermetically tight, although the quality of the performances is excellent. But what is it all in aid of? The stance taken on the characters is unmistakable as a kind of scorn - only the children manage to escape the derision, if only for their lack of experience. It's assumed that they too will grow into the monstrosities that their parents have become - self-involved, crippled by disappointment and bitterness, drunk and pathetic and almost infantile in their helplessness.

If this is a full-scale frontal assualt on the Argentine bourgeouisie, then it would have been better if Martel had written an angry letter, rather than wasting the precious resources of a talented cast and crew. If it's not that, if it's more interested in probing and searching than outright censure, than it must be a noisy, claptrap failure. The characters are half-drawn, the events are pedestrian and insignificant, and the atmosphere is just murky.

What's so damn frustrating about this is that it casts an imposing shadow of doubt over the rest of Martel's work - placing her dangerously close to the realm of the callous virtuoso - blessed with technical brilliance but lacking anything significant to say about the world or the sufferers who inhabit it.

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