Lucrecia Martel serves up a cacophonous brew of middle-class misery in her 2001 debut “La Cienaga,” or “The Swamp,” a film quite unlike any I had ever seen before. I say this on the tail end of having watched close to 300 movies in the last four years; it’s nice to know that, even after that modestly monumental number, cinema remains an inexhaustible fount of innovative storytelling — if you know where to look.
Or where to listen, as the case would be here. Martel belongs to a movement of filmmakers dubbed the New Argentine Cinema by film scholars, though as with most such movements the collusion of great filmmaking talent in a particular geographic area is more incidental than intentional. Martel and her contemporaries — Pablo Trapero and Martín Rejtman, among others — all attended film school at roughly the same time and concomitantly started producing movies that bore the marks of a shared schooling.
Martel’s particular contributions to her country’s turn-of-the-century boom in big-screen storytelling are her unique voice as a female filmmaker (she’s the only woman counted among her New Argentine Cinema classmates to have made it big) and her unsettling knack for crafting atmospheric soundscapes. Sound is rarely the first element to spring to mind when we think about what makes a movie great. More often than not, we’re inclined to pin laurels on (or throw tomatoes at) actors and actresses, screenwriters, cinematographers and composers for their individual contributions.
Think of the last time you read a movie review that utterly trashed a film on the basis of its sound and sound alone. If anything springs to mind, it’s Christopher Nolan’s “Interstellar,” which many critics faulted for its distractingly loud audio. (Others didn’t. I saw it in Imax and loved the eardrum-splitting experience.) Indeed, unless a film’s sound design distracts us from enjoying the other elements on display — usually because of erroneous sound mixing and not intentional creative choices — moviegoers are prone to be unaware of the power of an effective soundscape.
This is not the case in “La Cienaga,” whose opening scene bombards the viewer with a storm of sound effects. The tiniest of noises are amplified by a factor of 11 in Martel’s swampy universe, a land where middle-aged Argentinians waddle penguin-like around their pools with sangria in hand and youngsters skedaddle in and out of frame with lightning-bug frequency. The sound of ice tinkling against glass, of bathroom lights flickering on and off, and of an omnipresent thundercloud threatening a deluge but never delivering on its ominous promise create the sense of a country on the brink of going to hell in a handbasket. Martel never takes us all the way there, but her elliptical editing and writing style combined with her vicious soundscape bring us to the edge and back with alarming frequency.
In terms of storytelling, Martel is unapologetic in her narrative deviance. The basic outline of the, for lack of better word, “plot” is easy enough to grasp: watch what happens at feeding time in the rural bourgeois exhibit at the Argentine zoo! But the actual experience of watching Martel’s characters have at one another proves to be more beguiling than that pithy summary would let on. Martel’s cast of eccentrics is so large that you’re more likely to just latch on to one or two persons of interest — the decrepit matriarch who drunkenly stumbles over broken glass in the first five minutes, or the kid who won’t stop blabbering on about African rats! — and fixate on their trajectories than to try to figure out everyone’s stories. It’s an empathetic litmus test of sorts: which denizens of Martel’s world you find more worth watching says as much about you and your own biases as it does about them and theirs.
Speaking of biases, the film industry is notorious for having men dominate every aspect of film production. I suspect that part of what makes Martel’s film so refreshing and so unlike the majority of movies I’ve heretofore seen is that her cinematic sensibilities are to a certain degree opposed to those of male filmmakers. Though perhaps I’m only noticing this because Martel, as a woman in a male-dominated field, has to work harder to establish a distinctive voice to stand out from her male peers.
Look elsewhere in the world and the same story plays out again and again: the female filmmakers that garner international acclaim tend to be the ones whose styles are flashiest (Sofia Coppola, Ana Lily Amirpour), most innovative (Chantal Akerman, Sarah Polley), or most transgressive (Catherine Breillat, Lynne Ramsay). We frequently hear of the male directors of crowd-pleasing indie hits being tapped by studios to helm blockbusters, but female filmmakers with similarly humble beginnings are left by the wayside despite comparable critical and popular returns. I won’t try offering any end-all solutions to the gross gender inequality in the film industry, as I have none, but watching Martel’s film and partaking in her expertly crafted vision of the world is as good a place as any to start.
Tim Markatos is a senior in the College. The Cinema Files appears every other Friday.