La Ciénaga
dir. Lucrecia Martel
Opens Fri March 8 at the Grand Illusion.

Argentinean director Lucrecia Martel's meandering and often maddening feature debut announces the arrival of an important new talent. In a very funny opening sequence, an ominous grumble of thunder rolls toward a group of leathery, aging members of the bourgeoisie, who rattle the ice in their drinks as they lounge around a filthy swimming pool at a country estate. Drunkenly, they lurch to their feet and drag their cheap poolside chairs toward shelter--the metallic scrape against mildewed concrete matching the sounds from the oncoming storm.

Martel's camera pushes in suffocatingly close, lingering on every appendix scar, gaudy gold ring, and wiry white tuft of chest hair. When middle-aged matron Mecha (Graciela Borges) slips and falls into the shards of her glass, the assembled are so languid, so beyond caring, that neither she nor they seem to take any notice of her sprawled poolside, blood lazily pumping out of the gashes in her chest.

With just a few strokes, Martel vividly shows the Argentinean middle class in a spiral of decay, mired in the swamp to which the title refers. But nothing in La Ciénaga is as dramatic as this sequence, for Martel has eschewed a traditional narrative structure: The moments we spend with this messy extended family, their long-suffering servant, and their near-feral dogs scatter like family snapshots tossed into a maelstrom. In a sense, the numbing torpor of the characters as they quarrel and nap and quarrel and nap might be said to mirror the state of the Argentinean people--but does a film about purposelessness have to seem so purposeless? Although there is much that is touching and tragic here, I wonder how much more powerful this movie might have been if Martel had used her considerable talents to tell us a story. Instead, we watch a series of disconnected moments spin--and then simply sink--on the screen, like a leaf in that filthy swimming pool.