A Swamp of Ethical Ignorance in Lucrecia Martel’s films

Wiwat Lertwiwatwongsa aka  Filmsick

translated by Kittiya Moonsarn

First published in thai in READJOURNAL Vol.4 Jan -Mar 2009

It is a lethargic summer in a luxurious mansion of Mesa. All men and women are lying wearily in their swim suites on daybeds by the neglected swimming pool. The muddy water is filled with dead leaves that no one could swim in. The grown-ups, totally drunken by non-stop ready-to-serve whiskey, are planning about driving to Bolivia to shop something for their kids. Children, stay home during their school break, are making unstopped noise. Some carry guns to the forest as if to go hunting. There, they see a poor cow stuck in a mud hole, distressingly struggle to survive. Another child, whose teeth sprout from his palate, often stops breathing and most of the time ponders about a story of ‘a rat eats cat’ fooled by someone. A group of young men and women cluster inside the house. A girl obviously shows her attention to the Indian servants and takes advantage of her, while the servant tries every way to get away to see her lover. The eldest son, who arrives after his mom has fainted over a whiskey glass, is disturbed by many phone calls from his mom’s friend (who is probably a lover of his father and of he himself). As well, he shows his attention to the Indian servant and erotically flirts with his sister at the same time. In another house belongs to Tali, Mesa’s sister, things go on aimlessly along with the continuous chatting of the members. Only the lethargy and wickedness that silently hide in every particle of the dense air, with condensed mists above the dark sky and roaring sounds behind the mountain.

It’s quite difficult to say whether Amelia is a pious girl or not. Though she joins with Catholic club and prays all the time, she loves to whisper dirty jokes with her friends. Just like her mother, Hannah, whom we also cannot tell her apart between ‘a tough woman’ or ‘an unhappy woman in her burgundy halter dress who manages the hotel and stays there ‘. Doctor Jona is the same. We can’t really tell that he is ‘a polite otolaryngology doctor who comes to an academic conference’ or ‘a randy man who is fond of obscenity’. Amelia first meets doctor Jona when she goes to a concert where he molests her from the back. Before she’s aware of it, he has run away. Anyway, Amelia does not blame him. She’s rather pleased with his action and regards him as her obligation to god. Since then, she keeps her eyes on him and follows on his heels. Amelia finally gets some hints that he might fancy her mother and her mother also seems to respond his feeling. Among these uncertainties, in a bizarre dark and old hotel as if it was set on the far edge of the world, Amelia and these people ‘may’ or ‘may not’ do nothing at all. With the ambiguous pictures and events shown in limited frames, an apprehension quietly rises up like an undercurrent wave. That feeling slowly puts pressures on characters and audiences. The seemingly pointless events arouse frights and fears before transfer from one to another among the uncertainty, instability and anxiety as if the catastrophe are hidden everywhere.

After coming back from her relative’s house, Vero turns her car to the short cut on canal road. The road is deserted with no sign of human. Music was turned on loudly when she suddenly feels her car hits something very hard. It bumps up and down twice. Vero abruptly sets her foot on brake. She sits still in her car before recaptures all her conscious and restarts the engine. With her mind confused and dazed, she drives to the intersection to make herself calm before gets down to take a look. That’s when rain starts falling. Instead of heading back home, she checks in at one hotel and falls asleep unconsciously whole day whole night during the raining weekend. She wakes up another day feeling slightly guilty in mind that she might hit someone. She might have killed someone she doesn’t know who. She doesn’t even know whether she actually had killed anybody or not. With the unconsciousness and confusion probably caused by slammed head, she sinks into an unclear guiltiness, being anxious over its consequence and lives her life pointlessly.

Stories of Mesa, Amelia and Vero share many things in common. For example, all three are persons who were sunk into dump vague world caused by whether alcohol, religion or accident. Thus, instead of finding a solution to solve it, all of them choose to go on their lives and pretending “everything is ok” with gloomy climate and peculiar relationship between them and surrounding people as a background. A secret that needs to be concealed together with the fading of guiltiness have pushed them to shape another of their characters. The new characteristic does not at all make them strangers. On the other hand, it leads them to truly become part of the society they belong to; which is no doubt referring to the middle class society in Argentina or could be somewhere in the world.

In fact, all three women are characters from three different movies by Argentine female director Lucrecia Martel. Born in 1966 in a middle class family, Martel was counted as one of directors in New Argentine Cinema which referring to group of directors from a cinema school in Argentina boomed during the flourishing age of Argentina’s economy and a period when laws concerning various kinds of movie production were approved. However, New Argentine Cinema itself is not the icon of that flourishing age since these directors graduated and produced their movies when Argentina’s economy went down. So, movies by directors from this group mostly depict pictures of economic collapse. Anyway, Martel never counts herself as one of the group though she graduated from the same school (she once said in the interview that she had joined one film school but it was shut down before she graduated. Even though she moved to another film school, the real school and teacher for her are in fact movies and books.)

All the three movies of Martel portraying middle class lives in Argentina, a class she belongs to. Under simple and loose plots, her films base on basic elements of movie – pictures and sounds. In one way, her story could be summarized in brief and easy to predict the ending but sometimes it is difficult to say what the story is about because nothing really matter has happened. The loose plots in some scenes are filled up by off-frame sounds creating no-confidence while the character’s inner sentiments are being shown in limited frames.

The structures in these three films are similar. Starting from the setting, every story takes place in a limited space. In The Swamp, story begins in Mesa’s mansion, in a spa-hotel in The Holy Girl and in Vero’s house in The Headless Woman. However, we will not see the overview distant shots of those locations as Martel doesn’t really like the ‘established shot’ that illustrates the whole picture of a place with a room plan or entrance way. Her movies are full of narrow shots that the camera followes her characters. So, it’s our job to capture and imagine the whole place from the fragmental data the movies give. We may only see some parts of a hall, rough outline of a room, a wall, and a door, edge of swimming pool or part of a garden. For other conventional directors, we might be able to pull together the overview locations. But for Martel’s movies, the more we see each fragmentary scene, the less we can imagine. The confined frames blind us from the connection of each place. Or to simply say, she sets a place and tells us it existed. But for her characters, she makes it a ‘mysterious zone’.

Beyond the ambiguous locations, Lucrecia Martel’s movies usually occur in weird and bizarre weather. For example, in The Swamp and The Headless Woman, stories begin among the humid sticky air before the rain falls. In The Holy Girl, though the story happens in summer, almost every scene is shot indoor in a hotel that makes us feel wet and damp. As well, some scenes that her characters are in a swimming pool or at a spa room and having wet hair help adding even more lethargic air to the movie. Damp and moist surroundings crated the sense of dirtiness, making simple events becoming devilishly mysterious.

When the rain falls, Martel’s rain does not function as a purifier. On the contrary, rain in The Swamp makes her characters even more wet and dirty. In the first scene, we see the adults standing by the swimming pool, dizzy and drunken. We hear sound of distant thunder before the camera shoot on different faces. When it resumes to previous shot, we see Mesa falls down with a whiskey glass wounded her breast and then the rain falls. She was taken to the hospital in a swim suite, wet and soggy, on a muddy road. While in The Headless Woman, rain falls after Vero crashes on someone. As soon as she stops her car to compose herself, rain begins to fall and continues throughout the weekends she falls asleep. Rain, in these cases, is not the redeemer or sin washer but acting as a veil instead because the ‘things’ (or person) she crashes might have fallen into the canal and sink down under the heavy river current.

However, water in Martel’s film does not have to always come in the form of ‘rain’. It can appear in the form of swimming pool or damp mud. In The Swamp, like its title’s name, the water doesn’t only appear as rain but also it comes to our eyes by a form of swamp (with a poor cow stuck in and struggle to survive), a dam where kids go to relax (which has a large pipe with flowing water looks alike the deluge) and a muddy swimming pool that no one would wish to swim in (and when a brother and sister jump into it, it brings them dirtiness that they have to use the same bathroom which could be the most erotic scene between family members). The swimming pool in The Swamp therefore acts as a muddy swamp or dirty creek – a place that sully everything and everyone who touch it. Another swimming pool shown up in The Holy Girl still portrays a swamp of filthiness that hides some secrets beneath. It is this swimming pool where Amelia peeks at Doctor Jona and prays as if he is her redeemer. As well, this swimming pool is the place where her mother and doctor Jona obviously show their flirtation. Near the end of the story before Amelia reveals all secrets, she goes down and float in a swimming pool to make a decision. In The Headless Woman, the swimming pool is shown just once but what keeps haunting is the roadside canal since every character often drives to the same direction. The fact that we see the canal in a distance while Vero sits motionless in her car makes us feel as if the wickedness is all around. To conclude, ‘water’ in Martel’s films is kind of like performing as a filthiness and concealment.

Under oppressive and suffocating air, factors that enhance those uncomfortable feelings are her limited frames and unknown sound. In every of her movies, she makes use of narrow frames to show close up shots on each face of the characters (which visible emotions are hardly shown). In The Swamp, the camera captures almost ten characters, reduced to be three or four characters in The Holy Girl and only one in The Headless Woman. Every character will concentrate in front of the camera and whenever they move, the camera follows and leaves half of the frame free. Anything appears on that free space would have to be well composed as it affects the story and has to look natural as well. Each frame we have to fix our eyes on the characters is making a pressure point for them. Her films are representing the stillness and apathetic conditions where characters are falling into uncertainty of social status, the overlapping of thoughts and the vague relations to others. Their guiltiness and a moral conscious punish them, bringing both happiness and pain.

The distinguished scene in The Holy Girl is when Amelia and her friends go to see the place where the accident happened. One friend tells a story of a ghost that died there. The film shows close up shot which we could only see a crack on a bus window. When they get out, the camera follows them showing spinning shots. We hear them screaming and shouting they saw a hand of a corpse. They are yelling and running away. Camera captures a picture from the opposite side of the road. A car passes by them and almost hits one girl. When they outrun to the forest, a gun bang is heard as if someone is chasing after them but in fact it is just a gun fired by a hunter.

Among the shocking chaos, we strongly feel it must have been a serious violence while in fact there’s nothing had happened at all. Martel exemplifies violence by using some movie techniques, or to make it easier – she presents the ordinary event in a strong and intensive way.

Martel is so careful about the uses of sounds in her films. She once said that she rather sees an art of movie in terms of sound rather than picture. Thus, the sounds she meant are not soundtracks but the surrounding sounds instead. Within the limited frames that illustrate only few events, audiences can capture and imagine the whole event and the whole picture of everything by using only sounds. (Her movies hardly have soundtracks. If it happens to have a song, it must have been a song from the movie context itself). This technique is similar to director Robert Bresson. Most incidents in her films usually have happened because of ‘something off-frame’ (hints of Robert Bresson styles can be seen in her movies). The frightened and terrified feelings do not come from things you see, but from things you did not see. While a camera (monitor) is set in front, but the threatening fear is approaching at the back!

So her movies are prominent in the use of sounds that they are more significant than the vision. And most of the time they are sounds from somewhere or some things that are not shown in the movie. In The Swamp, non-stop talking sounds keep annoying the audience. As well, the grown-ups are also being interrupted by this annoying noise especially Tali whose young daughter never stops her mouth. Noisy voices of people talking are mixing up that finally we don’t even know who is saying what. In The Holy Girl, we are disturbed by Amelia’s unbroken prays, sounds of grating clothes or whispering sounds between Amelia and her friend Josefina. Likewise, in The Headless Woman, sounds of children in the beginning of the story, music and people talking are destroying Vero’s conscience whenever she regains her composure and starts to fall into moral guiltiness.

For Martel’s films, dialogue is quite useless. Her characters do not say what they think in the conversations. She tends to make the conversation just meaningless speeches. “Conversation doesn’t matter only in what the character says, it lies in their tone indeed.”

One scene to be pointed out as good concrete evidence is in The Headless Woman. After the accident, Vero is walking in a stadium and suddenly we heard a loud crash sound. Close-up shot switches from her face to a young man lying on the ground. He might be hit by a ball or something but it looks as if he is smashed by a car. This event reminds her of that accident. She flees to the toilet and that’s the first scene she is threatened by fear. When she is about to explode to cry, abruptly there’re sounds and sparking lights flash at the back (because the plumber is fixing something). This scene shocks the audiences twice within minutes. While we are shocked (just like Vero), her guiltiness is again interrupted and varied.

It could be said that her movies generally have broken the new ground from the traditional movies. These are movies that do not tell exciting plot. The pictures are not impressive or understandable. There are only limited frames locking up the characters. Sounds mostly heard are from the inside of the frames or just meaningless noisy voices. As such, her movies seem to be weak in communicating with the audience. However, in fact it is the core theme of her movies – to portray a slow, lifeless, dazed, blurred and ambiguous life of a middle class.

Martel’s characters seem to be influenced by Michelangelo Antonioni. Pictures of middle class members who found emptiness in their status, the situations they had confronted could not be counted as a ‘life-matter’ but just some repetitive thoughts that kept haunting them all the time. And within those confined frames, they would not find any way out. In the very beginning of the movie, we might able to predict what the story is about. But when the story ends, we could not even tell the real messages of the story, as if they were intentionally made to be ambiguous with the unresolved conflicts to be stuck in the audiences’ minds even after they walked out of the theatre.

Martel’s characters are women belonged to middle class society; the two sisters Mesa and Tali in The Swamp, Amelia in The Holy Girl and Vero in The Headless Woman. In The Swamp, Mesa is sunk in her drunken stage while Tali is busy with her life burdens that appear in the forms of four children who never go far from her. Mesa’s husband does care about his appearance more than his wife and engage in his after-accident surgery. All her children are grown up and have their own way of fascination, which has nothing to do with her. She lets herself totally drunk and fears she would become devilishly angry like her mother. But the more she fears, the more she drinks and the more she turns out to be like her mother. Her sister Tali, who wrestles with her four naughty children and doesn’t even spare times to rest, asks Mesa for a drive to Bolivia to buy something for her children. By seeing this, anybody can tell that Tali’s real intention is in fact to take a break from her chaotic, busy, disorder life. The movie shows lives of two sisters whose conscious are being scrambled, shuffled and blurred, but they prefer to hind it and pretend as if everything is ok. They gradually forget who they really are. In the last scene Tali seems to reckon something and listens to the unknown voice that mixed up with noisy sounds of her children. In her calm moment, the worst situation that could ever happen had happened.

For Amelia, she unconsciously ties her religious craze with a public molestation. Doctor Jona and all the audiences do aware that the action is immoral and sinful. Only Amelia believes it’s the god’s demand. She follows him and fells deep into her passion, believing it is the virtuous deed.

Vero’s case might be the most severe as she thinks she hit someone. We see her in a confusing state of mind, trying to rearrange her life back into normal condition. Moreover, the movie depicts a vagueness in her memory that she does not only forget whether she hits somebody or not, she also cannot remember that she has a daughter who is about to get married. Vero is reluctant to answer her relatives’ questions. And whenever she starts to feel guilty, she would always get interrupted by some surrounding situations. When she begins to tell, it is people around her that keep coaxing she had done nothing wrong.

All these scenes are commonly found in middle class society where people are falling into ignorance and surrender. They think they are a master of life who is capable of all responsibility. Nevertheless, they have to wave the white flag at last. They have mysterious secret moment in lives, but they tend to ignore it just like Mesa does in The Swamp, or try to recreate the righteousness like in The Holy Girl or do both in The Headless Woman.

What usually appears in Martel’s characters is the mysterious darkness of a family relationship. All three movies portray scenes signifying sexual affairs between family members and a homosexual relationship. In The Swamp the movie does not obviously illustrate it but we could see the flirting scene between Mesa’s cousins while at the same time Mesa’s daughter seems to be fond of the Indian servant. In The Holy Girl, an affair between Josephina (Amelia’s friend) and her cousin has become Amelia’s stratagem; whereas shots of Amelia and Josephina lying together like lovers are frequently seen. In The Headless Woman, Vero has an affair with her cousin. As well, Vero’s niece is a lesbian who once attempts to kiss her. All characters are living their lives with their own black holes of secrets and do not aware of them (by all means these behaviors have linked all of Martel’s characters to be the same person; the actress starring Tali in The Swamp had played Amelia’s mother in The Holy Girl. Aside, a character named Vero was once appeared in The Swamp as a golden-hair girl who flirts with her brother while Josephina, Amelia’s close friend, is Vero’s relative in The Headless Woman. It is quite assumable that Vero in The Swamp has grown up to be Vero in The Headless Woman.)

Within their lives’ indifference, they put the whole blame to ‘the native’!!!

We might not see this clearly in The Holy Girl (which the characters pin the blames on persons of same social status – but being alienated to them) whereas in The Swamp and The Headless Woman, the blaming of natives are obviously presented and reflected through the society.

In The Swamp, Mesa keeps bawling out her Indian servant all the time. She blames her of stealing something but never stop calling for her services. At the same time, the Indian girl has to tolerate with sexual harassment by both Mesa’s son and daughter. She is unavoidably fallen into a passive status. They willingly make use of her but detest her on the contrary. The unfair treatment the middle class behave towards the Indian (in which we may replace the situation with Thai and Burmese labors) are apparently shown in the scene that the children travel to a dam by hitchhiking with the Indian’s car. At the dam, they enjoy swimming and catching fish with knife (which is Indian way of fishing). When they return to city, the Indian give them fish for cooking. But just after the Indian left, the children throw the fish away saying those fish smell like mud and only the Indians eat them!

A relationship and position between the native (local, villager, alien labor, lower middle class, grassroots) and the middle class (bourgeoisie, ruler, educated and sophisticated people, wealthy people) are noticeably and heavily depicted in The Headless Woman. The movie begins with picture of an Indian child on street by a canal and then changes to the picture of Vero’s golden hair. The camera closes up at her hair that the audiences could tell she is of a middle class, having money and a rich car. Then she hits something. We might infer it is a dog (from which we see from a rear mirror) or it could be an Indian child. She does not stop to look but drive away. After a short while of confusing, she begins to aware of what she just did and feels guilty. With a confined frame, we could see she is most of the time surrounded by Indians; for instance at the hospital where she stops by to have a brain check, a hotel maid and a house servant who are Indians. Her discomfiture is not solved right at the point but she chooses the indirect way of redemption instead (like many middle class people prefer); she buys many pots from a shop that one worker missing (as she assumes that a missing worker is a child she hit). Then she shows her kindness to an Indian child who asks for a job at her house. She lets him work and gives him some clothes. The worst thing is when she dyes her hair to be black like Indian. That’s the way she redeems her sin. After that we don’t know what is about to happen but it becomes more horrible when her x-ray film disappeared and all the clues of her guilt have been dissembled by both climate and people surrounded her – her brother is a doctor at the hospital she had an x-ray, her cousin who is also her lover might do something with the hotel she stayed, her husband took her car to a garage. All the trails of the accident have been erased and no hints to trace back to her at all.

In the last scene, she is at the hotel counter to chech whether she used to stay here. The hotel front cannot find her name and this makes her relieved. The relief does not occur because she had redeemed her sin but for the fact that she realizes whatever she did it or not (she believes she did it rather than it’s her hallucination), it has nothing to do with her any longer. As a matter of fact, what she scares of is not the guiltiness of killing people but she’s afraid of losing her social status. (What would it be if she is the hit-and-run murderer? It doesn’t matter who died. It does matter if it ruins her normal life.) Her guiltiness has been diminished, not by a redemption but because all the sin clues have disappeared. In the last scenes, she almost believes she has done nothing wrong. This is not different to flocks of city middle class who craze of using cloth shopping bags and take it for granted that they have saved the world but still exploiting natural resources. Also, it’s the same with those who seek help for the Burmese victims attacked by cyclone Nargis but go on maltreating and enslaving their Burmese labors or even those who parade for democracy and kill others who think differently from them!

Accordingly a mentally illness that bites into middle class world in Martel’s film is nothing but an ignorance on morality and a made-believe set of rules that they are upright people who could done something wrong in life but not significant enough to worry about. “That’s the best I can do” sounds ridiculous more than sympathetic as ‘the best I can do’ based on the idea that ‘it’s the best I can do because it has nothing to do with me’.

The last scene in The Headless Woman is a family party. A camera shot through a glass window presenting picture of happy middle class in a party. Anyway, the picture is blurred with three overlap faded shadows. Inside the room, people are laughing and smiling. We look from the outside and see lives are carried on and locked in a dead room as if they are happy to block some perceptions off and live the rest of their lives in ignorance. This scene is the conclusion of all characters in Martel’s films – they only have a quick glimpse of awareness and then realize that awareness could bring them disaster or ruins their lives. What they do is to shut the door from any perception and continue a negligent life as usual.

This is Lucrecia Martel, a female director who exercises power of picture and sound in her movies effectively. Her movies manifest the artistic supremacy while wisely criticizing the society she belongs to at the same time. When we look back to the word ‘swamp’, which is the English name of her debut film, we would see that in The Headless Woman that swamp still exists. What is so amazing (in term of film) and painful (in term of social) is that apart from apparently shown, the swamp has existed in varied forms all the time in the movie. One scene in The Headless Woman, Vero’s gardener digs into the ground and finds out there was once a ‘pool’ buried underneath. The whole pool was covered with nice lawn and garden. Vero’s reaction was not to dig the pool and its history up but to let it buried that way and find something pleasant to veil over it. It is easier to continue a life by ignoring what we left behind or beneath – just like our lives in a kingdom that history has never been revised.

Footnote

1. Robert Bresson, a French film director whose films are Au Hasard Balthazar, L’Argent or A Man Escaped. Bresson’s films emphasize on composition rather than acting. He cast actors from ordinary people and trained them until they become his materials for the philosophical models. At the same time he uses confined frames to convey the events outside frames (he used to be a painter). Most of Bresson’s films relate with religious belief and some said he is a pious Catholic.

2. Michelangelo Antonioni, Italian film director whose films are Blow-Up, L’avventura or Red Desert. Antonioni’s films are aprototype of film that reflects the emptiness of the middle class. For further reading about Antonioni, “Blow-Up and Blowup: appearance and reality” (Thai) by Pakkawadee Weerapassapong in Readjournal magazine, issue 2.

Further Reading on Martel’s films:

http://www.ejumpcut.org/currentissue/LMartelAudio/index.html

http://www.theauteurs.com/notebook/posts/328

http://www.filmmakermagazine.com/blog/2008/10/mapping-lucrecia-martel.php

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