Those You Call Mutants: The Films of Lucrecia Martel

By Blake Williams

[Cinemas of the senses] generate worlds of mutating sounds and images that often ebb and flow between the figurative and the abstract, and where the human form, at least as a unified entity, easily loses its function as the main point of reference. One way or another, the cinema of sensation is always drawn towards the formless: where background and foreground merge and the subjective body appears to melt into matter.”—Martine Beugnet, Cinema and Sensation

Writing in 2007 on sense and the aesthetics of transgression in the so-called New French Extremity, Martine Beugnet laid out how a cinema of sensation—that is, one that privileges filmic texture, affect, and embodiment over and above narrative—could speak to a nation’s specific questions of identity and difference. “Film is, by definition, the medium of being as change,” she says, borrowing liberally from Deleuze and his notion of “becoming.” In early 2000s work by “extremists” like Philippe Grandrieux, Bertrand Bonello, Claire Denis, and Olivier Assayas, the expectation that a movie should be grounded in a “story” was abandoned, and they turned instead to the unconscious, to the interiority of dream places and non-spaces, and it was there where cinema was able to engage with more archetypal dimensions. By creating a cinematic experience that connects us to pre-objective experiences—those that operate before our desires and drives become encoded and organized by language—these filmmakers effectively enable the viewer to have first-hand, impulsive encounters with “originary worlds”: formless spaces where bodies exhibit traits both human and animal, placed in a seemingly permanent process of mutation. In this space, questions of difference become matters of fact, and the notion of the “individual” becomes essentially nonexistent. Containing multitudes, everything is an Other—even to itself.

As generative as her discussion was for this collection of French directors, Beugnet’s thesis, which participates in broader and deeper philosophical investigations into tactility and perception, has also been productively applied to other filmmakers and movements. This is especially true for national cinemas in South America and southeast Asia (namely, Argentina and Thailand), where many artists actively grapple with the casual sense of chaos, displacement, and Otherness that lingers in everyday culture, where images of life cannot be unmarked by spectres of colonization, racism, and barbarism. But there is a significant difference. The images and sensations evoked in the work of these nations’ leading art-cinema auteurs most frequently suggest abstractions in their pacing and sound design rather than visual information, and their overall sensibility tends to err toward a minimalist naturalism, cut with intimations of the supernatural. Exceptions abound, of course—French extremist Gaspar Noé does, lest we forget, originate from Buenos Aires—but the overall taste of these filmmakers has, to date, been patently placid. Theirs are movies that glide alongside landscapes, manufacturing and mining originary worlds with patience and contemplation.

Perhaps the most interesting exemplar of this tendency is also one of most important figures to have emerged from the nearly three-decades-old New Argentine Cinema wave, Lucrecia Martel (for whom Thailand’s own lead figure, Apichatpong Weerasethakul, painted two stylized portraits for this magazine’s 50th issue). This is not only because of the way she meticulously straddles the arbitrary divide between narrative and avant-garde storytelling (“Her cinema is like a dance with precarious steps,” to borrow Joe’s terms), but also how she, like fellow fest-circuit superstar Lisandro Alonso, heightens sensory reception and bodily awareness by foregrounding the absence of conventional cinematic stimuli. For both filmmakers (especially Alonso), temporal indeterminacy and perceptual lethargy are part of the game, and Martel’s playful muddling of time and sense is all the more radical, destabilizing, and affecting because her movies initially seem to be appropriating understood narrative templates and genre standards that we associate with more popular or classical modes of filmmaking—movies that we go into believing that we already know them. But as we invariably come to find in Martel, this sense of grounding is only the point from which she will lead us into the unknown.

We see this immediately in her feature debut, the Alfred Bauer Prize-winning La Ciénaga (2001), a realist sedative of a movie assembled from the shards of stale soap-opera tropes and the stink of hangover. A simple outline of the movie would colour it as a piece of practically Altman-esque portraiture that showcases two white, bourgeois households feuding and flirting their way through several recuperative days in Argentina’s damp, musty Salta province, the area where Martel grew up. The characters are copious (if predominantly ambient) and the air is rife with disaster (and lots of humidity), while ubiquitous television coverage of a local Virgin Mary sighting streams for days, and the oppressive aura of Christian immanence seeps into the mise en scène from all sides. Also on the margins: the traces of scars, old and new, mostly belonging to the potentially inbred children (crossbreeding seems to be a legitimate phobia for these people, lest they come into contact with someone who isn’t of their own kind); the neighbour’s allegedly monstrous rat-dog, fenced in but audible nonetheless; and the literally marginalized servants, all collas (or “those Indians,” as the materfamilias Mecha [Graciela Borges] insists on calling them), who are always on the verge of being fired. Bodies here are thus marked by what they aren’t: white, native, pure, legitimate, healthy, and stable.

Disappointed in the sway that appearances hold, La Ciénaga achieves its most affective abstractions in the sound design. Right in her opening-credits sequence, Martel grants primacy to listening over viewing. Beneath groaning thunderclouds, a pack of somnambulant forty- and fiftysomethings, garbed in too-tight swimsuits, arise from their poolside slumbers to reposition themselves. Despite the repeated cutaways to text on a black background, our sense of this place and the zombified individuals inhabiting it never vanishes. Whining curtain rods and clinking ice on glass punctuate what may be one of the new millennium’s most indelible soundscapes: the tireless screech of cheap metal dragged across pavement, lawn chairs being moved into the most negligible of new configurations: the noise of pure inertia. Film sound has rarely felt more pronounced, and yet this intoxicated bunch can hardly hear the cries coming out of their own mouths. It’s the stuff that a term like “haptic” was made for—sounds so palpable you can swat them.

With sound and atmosphere given the advantage, our experience of this reality becomes mediated by the beats of Argentina’s middle class and their historical myopia. Their clatter is put in competition with the rhythms of the natural world, and if sensation could be said to offer us our greatest entry point into the unthinkable regions of experience—those points where we might sense and come to know our most basic impulses, deranged by the violence of forgetfulness—then it’s the opportunity to experience the world in a more disorderly, more integrated state that is at stake. So in manufacturing a stalemate of these forces—a standstill that Martel no doubt perceives as endemic to Argentinian culture—the experience of being in front of her movie becomes one of exaggerated inactivity. Nothing moves, progression and memory are halted, and what we see is only what is put right in front of us. It is not at all coincidental, then, that the movie should finally end when its most considerate and open-minded character, Mecha’s teenage daughter, Momi (Sofia Bertolotto), proclaims, after venturing to the site of the Virgin sighting, “I didn’t see a thing.”

Martel’s follow-up, The Holy Girl (2004), picks up where Momi left off. Tracking the transition of its central protagonist, Amalia (María Alche), into both sainthood and adulthood, we’re once again subsumed into the invisible, intangible world, as well as the metamorphosis of a body and the complex desires that guide it. As in all of Martel’s first three features, passion and sexuality here are wild, queer, and wilfully confrontational to common social mores. Siblings and not-so-distant relatives flirt (and sometimes more), ostensibly straight women share heated moments, and relationships bud between individuals with conspicuous age gaps. These details are often presented so suddenly or cursorily that they might leave subtle impressions before they register as vital or dramatic, though this is not the case in The Holy Girl’s first momentous event, wherein Amalia is quietly assaulted in public by a middle-aged man named Dr. Jano (Carlos Belloso). Troubling as this scene is, it’s also brimming with sensorial disjuncture, not least attributable to the fact that the two are both watching a street demonstration of a theremin, an instrument that defies common understandings of the essential links between touch and sound. Due to their positioning (both facing forward, eyes on the performer), Dr. Jano is able to massage his crotch against Amalia while neither can see the other’s face. The ambiguity over how (dis)pleasurable this experience is for Amalia—in the moment, for the rest of her life—constitutes perhaps the film’s central mystery, and is also probably the clearest expression of the way Martel entangles sacred, profane, and erotic experiences to upend the stability of middle-class civility.

Like La Ciénaga, The Holy Girl ends with sensorial obscurity, this time with sound, smell, and even weightlessness. As in the former’s conclusion, the setting is once again a swimming pool. Amalia and her best friend Josefina (Julieta Zylberberg) take a dip, and we witness a wave of uncertainty and disturbance briefly overcome Josefina. “Do you notice that smell?” she asks, and Amalia does. “Orange blossom.” Josefina promises to take care of her like a sister would, and the two recline. Floating in the water, an unidentified woman approaches to ask them both, “Did you hear?” which ends the film. It’s a startlingly open-ended and fitting conclusion to this tale of spiritual non-awakenings—cinema as a transitory state, elongated into permanence, stagnation, and aimlessness.

Four years later, Martel doubled down on every motif and stylistic strategy that she’d deployed in her first two films for The Headless Woman (2008), a spectral and glancingly Hitchcockian anti-thriller. Sense, especially, is called into question, to the extent that even our own faith in what we’ve seen is cast in doubt. For nearly its entire duration, The Headless Woman follows Vero (María Onetto), an upper-middle-class woman with dyed blonde hair (separating her from the dark-skinned and -haired working class, while also recalling Vertigo [1958]), who spends most of the movie in a trance state after she hits something with her car. A quick glance in the rear-view mirrors suggests it was a dog, but her (and our) confidence in that image is increasingly cast into doubt by her own paranoia—an inkling that sprouts from nothing other than the possibility that she could have hit someone and ruined her own life in that moment.

As Vero’s guilt escalates and a kind of psychosis takes hold of her, family and friends rush to delegitimize her perception of reality. “Nothing happened,” “You had a fright,” “It was a dog, you killed a dog”—all resisting her attempts to transform what they perceive to be a non-event into an event, and denying the reckoning that she, or something in her body, is willing herself toward. While some have positioned the film as an allegory about the 30,000 left-wing activists, students, and journalists who disappeared during the nation’s Dirty War, Martel was careful to make the movie as loose-fitting and open as she possibly could have. Time and vision are as elliptical as they’ve ever been in her work, liquefying reality and history alike. Borders come down, and separation becomes an impossibility. “The house is full, they’re ghosts!” Vero’s aunt tells her, no longer able to distinguish between material presence and that which has been lost to the past.

In this regard, Martel may be one of our slyest genre filmmakers, in that she engineers sensations of hauntings and horror out of the fact that we can’t see what we know ought to be haunting and horrifying us. And if there was one thing that made the nine-year gap between The Headless Woman and her long-awaited new film, Zama, the most interminable, it was the prospect of her finally making a complete step into genre: first promised in the form of an adaptation of Héctor Germán Oesterheld’s alien-invasion comic book El Eternauta (1957-9), then as an original script in the fantasy genre about “real monsters” invading a garden. A taste of what might come of these impulses came in 2011 when Martel made the commercial/short film hybrid Muta (which translates, aptly, to “mutated”). Setting her film on a yacht (water, again), Martel reinvents her brand of filmmaking with this sleek, stuttering glimpse of malfunctioning women (or are they just in-progress, caught in slide between one form/gender/species and the next?) awakening and reacclimating themselves to the rhythms of a world they’ve been shelved away from for who knows how long. Their bodies don’t so much move as snap and flutter, but they appear to be synchronizing themselves in preparation for some kind of extermination—of who or what we can only guess.

Which brings us to Zama, an historical epic ambitiously based on Antonio di Benedetto’s 1956 book, what I have no trouble believing is one of the greatest Argentinian novels ever written, and which launches Martel’s filmography into new and curious terrain. Unwavering in its critique and recreation of Argentina’s colonial legacy, the story follows Don Diego de Zama, a criollo (of European ancestry, but born in Latin America) working under Spain on the Paraguay River in Asunción (the “Mother of Cities”). We meet him waiting for a letter from his wife, Marta, with whom he aims to be reunited after he advances in rank and the king finally—eventually, hopefully, maybe—responds to his request to be transferred to Lerma in Salta (one of Martel’s personal touches; in the novel it’s Buenos Aires).

On paper, the undertaking represents a number of firsts for her: the first to not at least partially draw from her personal memories and encounters with her family; the first to not be set in the ostensible present; and the first to be centred on a male protagonist rather than a woman or a group dominated by women. That Martel relocates Zama’s desired transfer point to her own hometown is only fitting, for Zama in many ways represents the material manifestation of her prior work’s negative space—an inversion of her preoccupations up to this point. These are the phantoms of her first three movies, the ones howling in the skies of La Ciénaga to the ones leaving handprints on the windshield in The Headless Woman. Zama is all they’ve been suggesting—the centuries of traumas, invasions, and patriarchal bastardry that resulted in this present—speaking back to them, just as they likewise sit in its shadows.

Indeed, Zama could rightly be viewed as a purification of her career’s preoccupations. There, by the water, “Ready to go and not going,” muddy girls and two vicious slaps. Fish, damned to spend their lives ebbing and flowing in an unrelenting current, living solely so that they can remain in place—as effortless a summation of existential putrefaction as we’ve gotten in her cinema, right there in a supporting character’s anecdote. Don Diego de Zama, of course, is that fish, waiting for the provincial Gobernador, the king of Spanish Empire, God, somebody (anybody) to transfer him. But bureaucracy intervenes, and he ends up stuck somewhere far from what he needs, killing time and his heart’s appetite for genuine intimacy. Di Benedetto, a noted admirer of Dostoyevsky, owed just as much to Kafka and Beckett, and Zama often evokes the latter’s Waiting for Godot, which premiered three years earlier: arrivals failing to appear, promises delayed and unkept, workers transformed into passive, ignorant nothings—their exasperations best pacified by mimicking this mistreatment on others. A legacy of negligence is born, and progress and love become fleeting if not entirely meaningless afterthoughts of existence.

Where di Benedetto’s Zama coasts on its pithy prose and the pitiful hubris of its protagonist’s inner thoughts, Martel’s delights in uncanny compositions and the cryptic, hollow expressions of her lead, Daniel Giménez Cacho. Stepping back from her standard mode of expressionistic realism, Martel’s direction here is pointedly characterized by decorative bodies fixed in stiff, rigid positions, their almost animatronic movements subservient to the needs of those who are lighter than them. Despite its on-location production on the Paraguay River outside of Formosa, the mise en scène (for interiors especially) is caked in colonial artifice, at times mimicking the didactic historical reconstructions seen in travelling sideshows and amusement parks, not so unlike what we see in the final passages of The New World (2005), the movie that Martel’s most superficially resembles. But unlike in Malick’s opus, Zama’s attention is firmly attuned to a character’s psychological condition, watching it dissipate until it finally disappears.

Perhaps the greatest addition Martel makes to di Benedetto’s creation is this experience of losing perception. In its presentations of place and time, Zama casts an amorphous impression not unlike a nightmare or memory. One of her most significant deviations from di Benedetto was in removing all denotations that marked the passage of time; thus, the novel’s subsections—“1790,” “1794,” “1799”—all get welded into a single march toward the 19th century, years disappearing before we’ve even sensed they arrived. Devoid of a narrative arc or sense of progress with regards to Zama’s chief goal (to get promoted), temporal placement becomes nearly impossible to gauge. Outside of time, in the realm of the senses, experience approaches a state much closer to madness—its means less evident, its effects more visceral. It’s convenient, then, that di Benedetto’s structure grants Martel the opportunity to save her most affecting and barbarous blows for the end. In a last dash to ingratiate the king, Zama departs on a treacherous expedition to capture the mythical, notoriously deadly Vicuña Porto. Without spoiling its conclusion, this is the point where violence is able to extend beyond the frame, walloping our nervous systems with blows that only worlds obsessed with difference can inflict. In these, the film’s most crucial and corporeal moments—with Otherness now camouflaged in the reds of both war paint and blood—bodies appear as though they’ve finally inverted. In every sense.