Thursday, April 22, 2010

The Swamp

(spoiler alert - this entry reveals important plot details.)
I've been watching horror films lately, but it's often difficult to explain what I see in them. I tend to look 'through' the films, viewing them with a lens that filters specific information. The "wrong" elements are usually the most interesting - poor dubbing, flat acting, disassociative editing, incomprehensible plots.
Thanks to a well-timed suggestion, I've been been immersed in the brilliant, unique world of Argentinian director Lucrecia Martel. All three of her films are amazing, but I've been particularly inspired by her first feature film, La Cienaga (The Swamp). I see this film as a potent meditation on the relationships between horror cinema, "real life" and representation. It takes all of the best things about horror films and accomplishes them without the fantastic, supernatural, or bizarre. It's the normalcy of La Cienaga that makes it terrifying. Here we have the internalized horror of daily life, the small perversions, widespread violence and embroidered visions that make up an ordinary texture.
The result is a parody (in the best possible sense) of horror’s focus on effects. We see this beautifully in the first scene, the first shot of shaking hands pouring blood red wine, the melting font of the opening titles, the too-loud sounds of clinking, the fragmented shots of aged bodies and the disturbing screech of disintegrating chairs dragged across poolside concrete by drunken "zombies". Sounds and gestures that would usually derive from moody superimposition are here the result of ordinary occurrence (while still understood to be stylized and "constructed"). ‘Pit’ music is absent throughout the film, while the plausible sounds of thunder, gunfire and dogs are musicalized, repetitive and ominous. This sequence builds to a minor bloody anticlimax which, in the style of Bresson, is heard, not seen, and accompanied by the film’s one and only example of nondiagetic sound – a piercing graceful ring that follows the sound of shattering glass.

As with all of Martel’s movies, La Cienaga drops us into a teeming, complicated set of relationships, without explanation. The adults are ineffectual and scatterbrained while the teenagers are hyper-sexualized and feral. A sense of torpor and horizontality dominates -sticky summer air, fetid pools, afternoon naps. A group of boys prowl the mountains with guns. We experience this world as a slight disorientation through voyeuristic subjectivity. We are always left to wonder if we impose our own perversities onto the relationships. Edits are placed to ambiguate events, leading us to suspect or misinterpret. Every time we become certain, something intervenes to destabilize.

While vampires and demons are absent, there are other destructive myths playing through these character’s lives. Namely, a pervasive racial prejudice the upper-middle class family expresses against the racially “inferior” Indians with whom they are intertwined. This is a strange power game - dependent and dismissive, attracted and accusatory, arbitrarily lazy and blaming, or cruelly suspicious and inflammatory. The daughter is obsessed with the maid, alternating between sexual prayer and recrimination. Playing against this distrust is a continuously televised sighting of the Virgin Mary by a poor family on the outskirts. The dialectic reminds me of Michael Taussig’s thesis in Shamanism, Colonialism, and the Wild Man, which shows the potent mixture of fear, oppression and mystical power that accompanies a mythology of the “other”. The casual racism of La Cienaga is truly horrifying.

This is a very difficult film to reduce - each interaction feels both deeply symbolic and totally mundane. Everything is important, but a simple listing of moments in sequence would communicate nothing. The pacing maintains an ongoing and dispersed state of dread. At several points, amidst the half-sleep and lethargy, we are led to expect something terrible – something that never quite happens. Finally, in the movie’s last moments, it crystallizes. We know the innocent young boy is going to explore his fear of “African Rats”, climb a ladder and fall to his death. We know it, and still it happens. The anticlimax of this event is strangely horrible and again, heard rather than seen. Instead of “showing all” and focusing on the sensationalism of gore, we encounter accidents as inevitabilities - average misunderstandings, common deformations and standard neglect. This is the opposite of a horror movie, and/or the most interesting horror films I’ve yet seen.

Lucrecia Martel discusses her appreciation of Horror cinema here. "LM: I always work with some elements of horror. I love the dissolution of reality in horror films. The lack of certainty, and the lack of security. What are you seeing? What are you hearing?"


Matt Carlson said...

Great piece Seth. I watched The Headless Woman 3 nights in a row!

It's interesting: La Cienaga often had me wondering whether or not I was supposed to have a grasp of who's doing what on screen. Martel ambiguates characters as well as events with the dual-family conceit. The Holy Girl was a bit more straightforward in this regard and The Headless Woman felt somewhere in between to me.

That sense of dread that Martel conjures up in every frame reminds me a bit of Michael Haneke, and a more overtly generic filmmaker you'd probably find interesting: Kiyoshi Kurosawa. He does these kind of existential "J-horror" films. Check out Cure or Pulse if you haven't already.

Matt Carlson said...

Great piece, Seth. I watched The Headless Woman three nights in a row!

It's interesting: in La Cienaga I was often unsure whether I was supposed to know who was doing what on screen. It ambiguates character as well as events because of the dual family conceit. The Holy Girl was a bit more straightforward in this regard, and The Headless Woman felt somewhere in between.

That sense of dread that Martel conjures in every frame reminds me a bit of Michael Haneke, and a more overtly generic filmmaker you might find interesting: Kiyoshi Kurosawa. He makes these sort of existential "J-horror" films. Check out Pulse or Cure if you haven't already.