Salta scene: Lucrecia Martel presented La Ciénaga in person during the YBCA's ongoing series on her work.

Lucrecia Martel and a Case for Decadence

Sean Uyehara July 17, 2009

Blood red wine is poured into sweating crystal. Ice is added, and the glass is held aloft and rung like a bell, incessantly. Metal folding chairs scrape across the deck of an algae-filled pool as corpulent bodies shuffle for their alcoholic meal, extending the coterie’s drunken haze. From the very first moments of her first feature-length film, La Ciénaga (2001), Lucrecia Martel established herself as one of the most observant, powerful and urgent filmmakers working today. That opening would be memorable coming from any filmmaker. But, in this case, given that it accompanies a debut effort, it is nothing short of astonishing.

Those first moments of La Ciénaga are also abstract of all of Martel’s film work to follow—featuring what has come to be known as Martel’s primary concerns: classism, decay, femininity. Those moments display Martel’s ability to create a complex and beautiful relationship between sound and image and her surprising/provoking approach to storytelling.

As with many artists, Martel has a body of work that is not easy to define. Her style has been described as "minimal," but the term misses the deep emotions running through her oeuvre. She is usually associated with a movement called New Argentine Cinema that is said to have emerged in the late 1990s and early 2000s, but her style is so singular and her concerns so specific that the national-cinema descriptor doesn’t seem particularly appropriate. While she certainly is an Argentinian filmmaker, each of her three films take place in the particularity of the Salta region of northern Argentina, where Martel is from. Salta is near the border of Bolivia, a place that Martel describes as the most conservative and racist in the country.

Martel was in San Francisco to present two of her films, La Ciénaga and The Headless Woman (2008) at Yerba Buena Center for the Arts on July 14 and 15, respectively. A third film (her second produced), The Holy Girl (2004), will be presented July 23 at YBCA as well. Following her screenings, Martel proved to be engaged and engaging, deeply thoughtful and generous without appearing pedantic or prescriptive. Her films are provocative and beg for wildly disparate reactions from audiences, and it is clear from her discussions that she enjoys the differences of opinion and interpretation that her films generate.

Martel stated after the La Ciénaga screening that though many people think of the film as a condemnation of decadence, she believes that it is not a rebuke of decadence at all—that it is only through decadence that we might right things in the world.

This kind of attitude might be best explained by looking at her most recent film, The Headless Woman. In it, Martel delivers an elliptical tale of angst and paralysis—of a person that is cut off from her own desire—with a presentation of character that recalls Antonioni. From the outset, Martel unveils a strategy of systematic ambiguity, where the specter of a possible accident/murder haunts the psyche of the main character (Vero). Martel makes it difficult to recognize the relations between events, places and characters. It’s hard to pick out especially relevant moments, although many moments are suffused with a pregnant potentiality. The film’s genius is in its ability to bring myriad elements (plot, setting, narrativity, etc.) to bear on describing Vero’s weightlessness.

The main event of the film, perhaps the most important moment in Vero’s life, is shrouded and occurs in an area of placelessness. The dirt road along the canal where the "accident" (if there was one) occurs is a shortcut between Vero’s neighborhood and the poorer surrounding vicinities. It’s a nether region that is merely between two divorced economic zones. In a sense, the canal road is a perfect metaphor for Vero’s experience, as the road can be figured as a tangent. One gets the feeling that Vero may never fully realize her own experiences, except in the rare instance when she brushes against them asymptotically. Vero is anything but decadent. If she is self-indulgent, it is in the sense of being completely inward and stagnant. The Dionysian sense of decadence—open and sensuous—is nowhere to be found in this film, and this is the type of decadence that Martel would appear to advocate.

Indeed, in Martel’s films overall, disjunction and disconnect often define the worlds that her characters inhabit. Voices and sound effects often float in from offscreen and faces are just as likely to be occluded as present. The conspicuous absence of Vero’s body in Headless is a marked difference from Martel’s previous two films, which focus very much on the sensuality of bodies as they become entwined and rub against one another. Touch or the lack of it represents a key thematic in all of Martel’s films, where we see a faceted depiction of her character’s yearning or refusal of human contact. Characters are very much defined by the access they provide to others. And, read this way, we can see through Martel’s films an argument for the existence of a conscious blindness that is fostered amongst a closed middle-class milieu, one that reinforces its behaviors, that does not reach out and connect to others or to an outside world.

Instead of a critique of decadence in Martel’s work, we see ample evidence of a critique of decay and stagnation. Her first two films, Ciénaga and Holy Girl, most strikingly share a common the common visual metaphor of ruin with Ciénaga taking place on a dilapidated estate, seemingly being slowly ingested by the landscape. Likewise, Holy Girl’s primary locale is a decrepit hotel, a place that seems beyond repair and barely suitable for occupancy. The settings are places where one gets stuck in place and time—where one is eventually unhinged from any kind of otherness and differences become difficult to define. The places reek of emptiness.

It’s in Martel’s female characters that there seems to be the best hope. Women are more fecund, enjoy the most humor, and usually have more access to a fully realized self, thus appearing the most likely candidates for change. Amalia, the main character in The Holy Girl, is coming to grips with her sexual and religious consciousness. She just might save a middle-aged doctor by giving herself to him. Even Headless’s Vero, whose disconnectedness is severe, poses possible radical excesses that need to be pathologized, cut off and quelled. In the end, there is an extended critique of the middle class. But, the solutions are not what one might first assume. Instead of a restraint, Martel’s films seem to advocate a hyper-indulgence. The novel approach, like so many of Martel’s ideas and themes ideas—like her films in general—shake one out of their everyday patterns of thinking, and do what the best representations do. They allow us to view our very worlds with a vivid sense of the new.

The Headless Woman will open its theatrical run in San Francisco September 18, at SFFS Screen at the Sundance Kabuki.