Lucrecia Martel’s La Ciénaga is an unforgettable film steeped in the swelter of its titular swamp. The opening scene unfolds like a horror film: the camera avoids establishing shots in favor of dizzying, handheld close-ups on the used wine glasses and aging bodies of middle-aged bourgeois boozers on a muggy afternoon in northwestern Argentina. A hand pours wine into a glass, shakily adds ice cubes, and rises unsteadily into the air to rattle the ice cubes and direct guests to move the lawn chairs in anticipation of an imminent rainstorm.
The guests reluctantly shuffle like zombies across the concrete patio lining a rancid swimming pool, dragging their chairs behind them. The camera draws attention to the slow stupor of their movements: close-ups on sagging bellies, wrinkled rear ends, and hands clutching drinks or cigarettes—or both at once. The scene closes when Mecha, the summer home’s matriarch, falls on several wine glasses and slices her chest open. Everybody is too far gone to realize the seriousness of the accident; Mecha’s teenaged daughters must assume the responsibility of getting their mother to the hospital.
The rest of the film’s style and narrative is equally fragmented. When Mecha invites her cousin, Tali, to visit the summer home with her children, the tensions within each family threaten to explode. Characters’ motives, desires, and fates—from that of four-year-old Luciano to Isabel (the native maid) to middle-aged Mecha—are revealed in a slow burn made up of glances, gazes, innocent questions, snide comments, and sinister foreshadowing. The film resists visual spectacle; in one scene, three (white) female cousins coax Isabel’s (native) boyfriend to undress in front of them, but the racial inequality among them thwarts any pleasure to be gained from male bodily spectacle at the hands of the teenaged girls. La Ciénaga seems always to hang by a thread—or, as Luciano does in one scene—holds its breath for too long.
The film’s visual richness and heavy atmosphere, along with its understated commentary on bourgeois lifestyle and race relations in Argentina, grant Martel a well-deserved position as one of the foremost filmmakers in South America—and the rest of the world.
Sonia Lupher is a PhD candidate in Film and Media Studies at the University of Pittsburgh, where she is writing a dissertation on the ties between women’s horror filmmaking, women’s genres, and women’s cinema. She is the founder and project manager of Cut-Throat Women: A Database of Women Who Make Horror. You can follow her on Twitter at @SoniaLupher.