In La Ciénaga, life is an accident waiting to happen. Lucrecia Martel’s first feature is suffused with mingled menace and lethargy. On an Argentinian country estate, a boozy, middle-aged mother of four teenagers berates the servants and entertains guests, including her cousin, who visits with four little children. “When the house is that full of kids,” Martel explains, “something’s bound to go wrong.”
Born in 1966, writer-director Martel grew up in Salta, a provincial city in northwestern Argentina, the second of seven rambunctious children in a noisy, middle-class family. “The summers were hot, rainy, and humid,” she recalled. “The city is in a valley surrounded by mountains. Often, the storms never arrive, but you feel them coming.” Martel began filming video portraits of family members while still in high school. She finished a degree in animation, and then attended the Argentinian Film Centre, which shut down during the country’s 1989 economic collapse. So she honed her skills by helping friends with short films, reading Greek philosophy, Heidegger, and Kierkegaard, and watching movies. Later, Martel directed documentaries and children’s programs for television. In 1999, her script for La Ciénaga won an award for best screenplay at Sundance; she used the prize as seed money for the production.
Though she admires directors as diverse as Bergman and Kubrick, Martel cites her family’s oral tradition of storytelling as her major influence. Her aim, she says, was to capture “the flux of sexual desire within a family. It’s uncomfortable and hard to accept, but for me it’s also full of life.” You have to concentrate pretty closely to figure out that the eldest son in La Ciénaga lives in Buenos Aires with an employee of the family company who is his father’s ex-lover. And at some point during the long afternoon siestas, everyone ends up in bed with each other.
Martel’s depiction of the role of servants in the household is particularly acute and subtle. “In this classist and racist system,” she explained, “a middle- or upper-middle-class person learns to demand, not only material services from them, like cooking or cleaning, but also affection. Of course, sexual abuse is very common. But there’s also this idea that you can order someone to love you.
“I try not to judge these things negatively,” she continued. “I’m more interested in the overwhelmingness of desire that is in everyone.”
Three weeks ago, Argentina’s economic malaise was front-page news, before recent world-shattering events pushed it to the fringes of public consciousness. But for Martel, her country’s crisis is an old story. “I grew up with the idea that we were always in economic trouble,” the director said. “Perhaps now the crisis is greater. It’s impossible, when you’re talking about Argentina, not to mention it. But for me this movie is not about the decadence of middle-class society. It’s about the idea of desamparo, or abandonment, in the mystical sense of creatures or human beings abandoned by God. It’s the fact that you are alone in the world, and you have to find a way to live.”
Amy Taubin’s review of La Ciénaga