Inés sings with tears in her eyes in a display of “private inwardness.”
Helena and Freddy giggling and conspiring in her bedroom.
Jano first glimpses Helena in a diver’s pose.
In showing how Amalia stalks Jano, Martel leaves out connecting spaces.
The noise of foreground, background ...
... and adjoining room create a multi-layered soundscape ...
... in which we see the hotel's steamroom.
Extreme visual and aural close-ups collude to create foreboding. Here, Jano's ear.
Helena suffers from tinnitus, an inner ear disorder.
Amalia in Jano's room: “Listening reveals danger or promises the satisfaction of need." [Play sound file.]
Divine intervention: All eyes move to the window as a naked man survives a fall.
Dr. Jano performs a hearing test that reveals deficiencies Helena is unaware of and that he does not tell her about.
A dance of seduction full of missteps and awkwardness between Helena and Jano.
Manuel Schaller plays the theremin. [Play sound file]
Jano has the experienced body language of the groper as ...
... he moves up against Amalia in the crowd listening to the theremin on the street.
The opening of the film sets up the dynamics and tensions the film will unfurl. The catechist Inés sings while the girls gossip about the teacher's involvement with an older man. The song is at the fore, but again Martel layers her soundtrack. The shots alternate between close-ups of Amalia and her best friend Josefina (Julieta Zylberberg) tightly framed, as they almost always are, nestled together, and close-ups of Inés, choking up. Their whisperings about their teacher’s sex life are woven into the song, itself ambiguously on the edge of religious and sexual passion. The girls are both moved and embarrassed by their teacher’s display of “private inwardness” (Rée, 58). Josefina’s questioning of Inés’s religious sincerity is the first expression of the narrative theme about the tension between soul and senses, which Martel describes as central to her film:
The voice, “the centre of the world of sound,” is at once the “expressive secret of the soul” and the thing that conceals it (Rée, 66). Yet Inés need not be misleading the girls with her song as Josefina suggests. Her faith need not be passionless since Catholicism itself is rich in voluptuousness. In art Bernini’s Ecstasy of Saint Teresa is often evoked to illustrate this sensual spirituality, and of course, the Song of Songs’ parallels religious surrender with that of lovers.
All of this might be expressed visually. Martel’s reliance on the ear, however, gets at a more fundamental religious truth. As Roland Barthes has noted:
Catholicism’s sensuality is as much aural as visual. God speaks more often than he shows himself: “So then faith cometh by hearing” (Rm, 10:17). According to Charles Augrain,
To listen implies, in a sense, a giving over, the surrender with which these young adolescents are obsessed. And, as we’ve seen,
There is thus plenty of justification for Amalia’s confusing the love of God with the love of man (confusing the stirrings of sexual desire with the route to salvation, and worse, a tawdry act of molestation with the beginnings of a relationship.) Such a religious framework, however, is the “MacGuffin” of the film.[open endnotes in new window] Martel is less interested in religious devotion per se than the way the girls’ use it as a source of power and respite. Narratively using religion as an entry point into sensuality and emphasizing the power dynamics of human relations link Martel to Luis Buñuel, but her focus is less on hypocrisy than on the confused and confusing sensuality of girls and women. Of the two girls, Josefina finds her way around religious (and family) rules to physical pleasure, while Amalia, half angel, half devil, mixes the business of her divine mission with earthy ecstasy. The director captures the amorphous adolescent sexuality that is only half in the girls' own power. Once adults become attracted, the girls cannot control the consequences.
Sensuality touches every relationship in the film, and it is associated with immaturity: Josefina and Amalia, themselves, of course, experimenting with kissing and touch. So do the doctors who devolve to adolescence during the congress, mixing drink, ogling and frolics with medical discussions. And Helena and her brother, giggling and conspiring in her bedroom, retreat to a teenage dynamic as though they’ve never really left it. Not insignificantly, Jano remembers Helena as an adolescent, when he had a distant crush on her.
Once again sound, as much as Martel’s extreme close-ups, contributes to this sensual effect that one negative critic describes as “Sweatyscope.” As in her previous feature, we are bodily engaged by the intimacy of the film sound. The sensuality of the film is not just the “dance of small gestures,” a hand placed here, an embrace there, a flick of the hair or a flit of the eyes, though this choreography is tighter than might be supposed, but also the “visceral precision” of sound effects (Ruby Rich).
We could call these “aural close-ups,” analogous to visual close-ups. But the limited exactitude of the visual plays on the almost symmetrically opposite effect of aural exactitude. That is, we see details, but we cannot hear details in the same way. Rée notes,
Rick Altman reminds us,
While the peculiar close-ups focus our eyes on specific details, Martel’s use of them can be disorienting, as noted above, since she leaves out connecting spaces. Aural close-ups, a kind of auscultation of the rooms of the hotel, are similarly unmoored. While, as Barthes reminds us “the appropriation of space is a matter of sound,” neither the spectators nor the characters, as I will show, come to be entirely familiar with these
Thom would approve of this creaky hotel set as one conducive to “making sound a player,” and Martel makes full use of her chosen setting. An early sequence has Amalia and Josefina praying (the words again ambiguously perched between religious and sexual surrender) as machines hum and a “thump-thump” is heard intermittently off-screen. From a tight close-up of the girls lying down, there is a cut to a medium shot as Amalia sits up. In the background the source of the sound is revealed to be the hotel cleaners’ ironing and steaming clothes. In the same section, as Amalia enters Jano’s room, the noise of adjoining rooms and hallways —radios, voices, the swish of clothing, the rolling of wheels — create a multi-layered soundscape. We are listening to many rooms at once, and many of the sounds are “enigmatic and unlocatable” and troubling as a consequence.
As in La ciénaga, Martel at times delays the revelation of the sound source, as in the example of the steam machines. A peculiar rattle, like a curtain being drawn, heard for the first time in the twenty-first minute, is more than ten minutes later revealed to be an aerosol spray, which one particular dedicated employee wields fanatically throughout.
Martel also makes use of an exactitude, clarity and slight spatial disjunction that can make the ordinary strange. When Dr. Jano enters the elevator, for example, a close-up focuses on his neck (a shot repeated three times in the film) as the soundtrack emphasizes every creak and clank of the elevator. There is a “whiz,” and when Amalia surreptitiously touches her hand to Jano’s, the sound of the elevator door sliding into place could just as well be that of a guillotine. Extreme visual and aural close-ups collude to overlay an innocuous conversation between Jano and his colleague in the elevator with tension and foreboding.
Hence, I would argue, Martel’s “amazing talent for creating a heightened and uncanny atmosphere” without “stylistic effects” — and what Gonzalez refers to as the suggestion of “horror” in her films — come in part from this attention to the details of sound, which in and of themselves, are at once naturalistic and disconcerting (Rapfogel). Like Luchi's in La Ciénaga, the characters’ ears are keyed up. Amalia listens for a divine signal; Jano listens to discern the sounds of Amalia’s scouting (at one point she plinks on metal as she watches him lying back in the thermal pool); Helena, who suffers from an inner ear disorder caused by her past as a diver, listens mostly to herself. In one sequence, as she dives in the pool, only a few drops of water are heard. Helena looks around and her point of audition leaves us suspended in silence for a few seconds before the full aural complexity of the space returns.
Jano’s perspective is communicated in a brief sequence of six shots, without an obvious point of audition sound. It begins with a hallway filmed with depth and slightly off-centre (Martel’s carefully crafted frames are almost always slightly askance, asymmetrical). A waiter walks out of the frame in the background plane while in an aural close-up a set of keys jangles. Amalia walks into the shot with the keys, and we understand her to have been lurking. In the next shot she is briefly framed through a slightly opened door before her presence fills the frame. We hear Jano’s sleeping breath before we see him. A snuffle indicates his coming to the surface of his sleep; there is a pause — the silence of the ticking clock — and then a full intake of breath has him snap awake, listening. Like Jano we are cued to the sound of footsteps or doors, but these are vague; what is clearest is something like the sound of heavy ceramic. Jano goes to the bathroom before his attention, and ours, is called to the dogs barking, sounds of voices and doors coming from the window. The sequence highlights the basic function of hearing for all mammals, to mark out territory as “the space of security.” It also emphasizes the “defensive and predatory” nature of Jano’s listening:
Barthes’ reflection offers insight into Jano and Amalia’s excited awareness of sound. Sound, and therefore space, is neither safe nor familiar for Jano. For Amalia, it can at any time be pierced by the supernatural, the shiver of God or desire.
Earlier, the sound eventually identified as the theremin interrupts the Sunday school lesson about God’s calling. “What’s that?” ask the girls, looking out the window. Later, during another conversation about divine intervention, a terrible thud directs all anxious eyes to the balcony door; the source is revealed to be a naked man, who has miraculously survived a fall from the floor above unscathed. These touches of sly humor build slowly along with the tension. For if the film creeps towards a tragic unravelling, it also moves towards blacker and blacker humor that
Sound is also the medical specialty of Dr. Jano and Dr. Vesalio. The first man’s conference presentation is on vestibular disorders, while the other is supposed to present research on the difficulties of diagnosis taken from the patients’ descriptions of their ailments. The challenge for these specialists in hearing disorders, it seems, is to listen. The conference will close with a demonstration and discussion of doctor-patient communication. A suitably interesting "problem" needs to be found, and conveniently Helena has both a theatrical background and a malfunctioning inner ear. Flirting with Jano in her own diffident way, she agrees to participate, and to have her hearing tested in preparation for the public representation of the consultation. Martel cleverly transforms the interrogation of the patient, fraught with the gender politics of melodrama, into the gentle back and forth of flirtation that Jano barely controls. A few scenes later, however, Helena, wearing headphones, is isolated in a sound booth being tested, unaware of her hearing deficiencies as Jano looks on, his gaze “medical and de-eroticized” (Doane, 293). In this controlled environment, the gender hierarchy is re-established. The doctor’s power is in knowing more, diagnosing and revealing the woman's inner mystery, obscured from even herself. Helena seems in fact to be suffering from Jano’s micro-specialty, Menière syndrome, an incurable condition with symptoms of intermittent hearing loss, imbalance, roaring in the ears (tinnitus), dizziness and ear pressure.
Helena’s tinnitus is acerbated, according to Dr. Jano, by watching television at night. We’ve seen her wake to the sound of a child yelling, “Mama! Mama!” on the television. We see a few shots of children wearing headphones as they yell, before she turns the TV off . The condition is telling in regards to her way of being. The last to hear news, she is slightly off balance, slightly tone deaf, and living in her own distracted bubble as she considers the best way to present herself in a given situation.
Her desire for Dr. Jano never quite reaches a boiling point, as she seems always to be acting from a script rather from passion, more from loneliness and boredom than connection. And though he has diagnosed her medical condition, he doesn’t get round to telling her, and hardly seems a “site of wisdom and safety,” as Mary Ann Doane describes the doctor of melodrama (292). Jano wields the power of medical discourse, but it is severely limited by his secret transgressions — the double life that his mythic name suggests — and his own inability to hit the proper notes in social interactions. Between the two of them they effect a dance of seduction full of missteps, awkwardness and disconnection. Sexuality is dangerous and silly at any age, it seems.
As symbolic as Helena’s condition, and perhaps the overarching symbol of the film, is the theremin, which accompanies many of the important moments in the film. The first electronic instrument, invented by Russian physicist Lev Thermen in 1919, it is played without touching (thereminworld.com, 17). A novelty act that comes to the little town of Salta, the theramin in fact requires great musical skill to play. The player moves her hands around its two antennae to manipulate pitch and volume without frets, keys or other markers. To play it well demands both excellent pitch and manual dexterity. Martel uses Manuel Schaller a famous Argentine theremin player onscreen,
The instrument’s ethereal sounds are associated in film with its more common use in science fiction classics, and there is some humor in incorporating its tones here as a supposed signal of the divine. As Jonathan Romney puts it, Amalia’s experience of frottage, while part of a crowd watching the theremin act, is “a bizarre juxtaposition of non-contact and improper-contact activities.” Martel’s framing emphasizes the contact's tawdriness. A close-up of Jano’s purposeful crotch movement is contrasted to a mid-shot of his casual expression. While Amalia’s face show her initial shock change to curiosity and pleasure, the spectator recognizes in Jano’s practiced body language the entitled abusiveness of a subway groper. The theremin demonstrates the beauty of the ethereal, Jano the ugly earthly.
The theremin’s unique touch-less playing emphasizes the paradoxes of sound that Martel exploits and explores. Sound is itself “touch-less.” Though it is experienced through the body, it cannot be confirmed by it. While it gives materiality to the image, it is itself immaterial. It grounds us in space, but as I mentioned it is “spatially agnostic,” a fact Martel and her team exploit by manipulating distance and directionality. I have described how sound brings us bodily into the world of the film (“viewers cannot watch La ciénaga without feeling the heat or checking the sky for rain,” says Ruby Rich, and the same is true of La niña santa.) Through the crisp, clear sound close-ups we not only watch but participate in the sensuality at play. Sound incorporates the spectator, and yet its “default condition” is one of disembodiment (Connor, 157).
Hearing and being
A sense that works in and through the body, hearing nevertheless can be entirely in the mind. God speaks, we hear voices. The girls wonder, how then to tell the voice of God from that of the devil, or madness? Is it the voice of the soul or the voice of desire that they hear in Inés’ song? Perhaps both, suggests Martel. Her reflection on sound makes us consider the difficulty of separating the material from the immaterial, the body from the spirit. Rée’s analysis is worth quoting at length:
Martel’s films are also “willing to refer its experiences to evanescent qualities.” Engaging all the senses as well as the intellect, they nevertheless leave us with a sense of the intangible.
Like Randy Thom’s manifesto, the work of film scholars is often a lament for what isn’t, based on the tantalizing possibilities offered by filmmakers who make truly “audio-visual” productions. My own work as a feminist analyzing sound means I am often highlighting the way sound is feminized and subordinated to the visual, made to play “Echo” to vision’s “Narcissus,” in the terms developed by Amy Lawrence. As Geetha Ramanathan puts it:
The senses, of course, work more in concert than our sound or vision-focused analyses suggest. Martel’s “written for sound” filmmaking reminds us of this, as one can hardly avoid discussing the oddities of both sound and framing in her work. Martel and her New Argentine Cinema colleagues understand sound as an intrinsic, if not primary, aspect of filmmaking. For Martel, listening is the first stage in the conception of a screenplay. More radically than her male colleagues, however, she sees listening as knowledge, sound as a conduit to a mode of being and understanding. While sound is most often associated with irrationality and emotion (music most obviously) and used in film primarily to externalize subjectivity, Martel posits sound as rational, listening as intelligent a sense as seeing, and equally primary to our being in the world.
The surprising result of this sound awareness is an embodied intellectual experience. Her films emphasize the interpenetration of hearing, seeing, touch and smell. Focusing on feminine interiorities of desire and domesticity, they engage wider social issues of class and power. Martel's touch is light and observational rather than judgmental. Neither La ciénaga nor La niña santa is overtly feminist in the ways we’ve come to expect. Rather, refusing the gendering and hierarchy of sound and image, they quietly assert a whole other way of seeing — and listening.