The morass of social mores
Within the first moments of her debut feature, La Ciénaga, writer/director Lucrecia Martel demonstrates a piercing sensibility and a sharp eye. A sagging, middle-aged, over-sunned group of leisure class men and women sit around a murky swimming pool drinking red wine on ice. The sky is gray but the heat is oppressive, as the summer lingers on in the northwest Argentine provinces, and the pool people can barely muster the energy to drag a chair noisily across the concrete patio. Teetering under alcoholic influence, Mecha (Graciela Borges) falls forward and shatters her glass into her chest. An instant later, the sky begins a torrential downpour, and the effort to aid Mecha becomes a minor disaster. When the rescue driver backs up over a patch of flowers, Mecha laments, “She’s crushing the hydrangeas!” How discreet the charms of the bourgeoisie.
Mecha’s children have their own problems, offering little hope for the next generation to perform any form of radical action, except perhaps the potential for queer desire. In the bedroom, her 15-year-old daughter, Momi (Sofia Bertolotto) holds the family maid Isabel (Andrea Lopez), having formed a romantic attachment to the seemingly ambivalent girl, who in turn has become pregnant by her boyfriend Perro (Favio Villafane). Mecha’s eldest son, Jose (Juan Cruz Bordeu), lives in Buenos Aires with a pepper vendor whom no one in the family can tolerate; when he comes home after Mecha’s accident, he begins flirting with family friend Veronica (Leonora Balcarce), a fair-complexioned redhead who shares his enthusiasm for mud wrestling.
Mecha dotes on Jose, despite his apparent reluctance to work or encumber any responsibility. Clearly, there continues in Mecha’s generation a privileging of the male son and the promise of patriarchy, despite the central and powerful role Mecha plays in the family. She dismisses her husband Gregorio (Martin Adjemian) as a “drunk,” and seems to resent Isabel because of the affection Momi shows toward her. Gregorio, for his part, avoids work and responsibility, surrendering essential errands that require driving to Momi, who is not legally old enough to drive. In all cases, Martel creates convincing characters, and elicits effective performances from her actors that never degrade into caricature. The mix is complicated: with so many characters, Martel presents an array of relationships—codependent, taboo, repressive, resentful—that perceptively comment not only on class issues, but also the ways that families and friends interact.
As both background and further commentary, Martel establishes an uncompromising sense of place—the crowded homes, the backyard forest, and the rancid swimming pool. The decrepit mise-en-scene of the film, shot in saturated colors, reflects upon the characters as much as their dialogue or actions do; likewise, the title, La Ciénaga (which translates to “The Swamp”), refers both to the setting of Mecha’s home and the state of middle class society.
Martel’s central critique of the decaying middle class seems to target the film’s women, who maintain a precarious power throughout the film. Upon her return from the hospital, Mecha spends her days in bed, afraid that she will turn into her mother, who spent her final years bedbound and irritable. Mecha does not appear to be as disabled by the accident as she makes herself out to be, and seems to be succumbing, in spite of her fears, to self-pity. At the same time, she continues to bark orders from her room and serve as leader of the household.
In one of her few sympathetic relationships, Mecha is visited by her best friend, Tali (Mercedes Morán), with her kids in tow. The time is just before school will begin again, and the women discuss an expedition to Bolivia for some discount school supply shopping and a girlfriends’ getaway. With both families circulating at Mecha’s home, the place is a circus, populated by overexcited children. The little boys run into the woods with guns for adventures; the girls dress up in gaudy make-up and costumes. And so, despite the affection Martel displays toward this female- female friendship, the women are portrayed as incapable—or simply uncaring about—disciplining their children or keeping watchful eyes on them.
Tali and Mecha do pay attention to a recurring strand of TV news broadcasts interspersed in this bizarre slice of life. The broadcasts, about a girl’s vision of the Virgin on a rooftop water tank, have created a local news sensation that occasionally engrosses Mecha and her family. They watch the coverage unquestioningly, without any discussion of Catholicism’s virtues or irrationalities. As they watch, the family members do not resemble the emotional fanatics who are interviewed in the television broadcasts, but are instead spiritless consumers, watching the miracle coverage as if it were a soap opera. In Martel’s pessimistic view, the middle class, portrayed through Mecha and Tali’s families, has devolved into a society of mediocrity, without ambition, religion, or any apparent redeeming values. Through dreary, dimly lit interiors, Martel intensifies Mecha and her family’s sense of being trapped (physically and socially) in a depressing, chaotic world.