“The presentiment of death, in a bare and empty image" — the site of Luchi's death.

Sebastián Montagna exudes vulnerability as Luchi.

Mecha’s inability to deal with the phone points to her slipping grasp on ordinary life.

The first shot of the film doesn’t inform us where we are but what we might fear.

"Where's Joaquin?" One part of the striking sonic opening [click to play sound file] overlays thunder announcing a coming storm, the grating discord of the lawn chairs, Momi’s prayers, Mecha’s anxious question,“Who is Joaquín with in the woods?"

Momi thanks God for Isabel.

The adolescents fish in the swamp. The hacking begins while ...

... the sound of water overwhelms the narrative.

Tali strains to hear above the cacophony of her family life.

Tali trying to hear over the sounds of welding.

The grating discord of the lawn chair is reinforced by the visual claustrophobia of the framing.

In La Ciénaga's domestic spaces, desire breeds and festers. Here, with a suggestion of incestuous desire, José intrudes on his sister’s shower.


Given the centrality of women in La ciénaga — and especially Mecha’s psychosomatic illness, Tali’s renunciation, and the teenage girls’ forbidden desires (incestuous and otherwise) — as well as the focus on the bourgeoisie, the domestic and the maternal, it might be said that Martel is playing with the themes of melodrama, arguably the dominant mode in Latin American cinema and still central culturally through hugely popular soap operas.[11][open endnotes in new window] But usually melodrama is constructed from the spectacle of emotion, displacements and significant moments, and its pleasures less in the conservative resolution than “in the amount of dust the story raises along the road, a cloud of over-determined irreconcilables” that is cleared, however unconvincingly, in a happy ending (Mulvey, 76). Here Martel is doing something else with the basic materials of female “unfreedom.” We find neither fantasy nor excess, neither “tears and high moral tones” here (Elsaesser, 46). Martel's films are woven together through revealing but ordinary moments, emotion that only just ripples to the surface, and characteristically for new Argentine cinema, de-dramatized narrative. And even more radically than her peers, Martel uses “big moments” that only take place off-screen.

If sound effects, as I later suggest, replace music, audio does not mark or express the protagonist’s emotion as in melodrama.[12] It is not used to define characters from the inside out – not articulating, for example, nostalgia or desire — but rather to define personality from the outside in. As I will show, Martel's sound motifs are tied to the reality of external space; they define characters through the friction between their interiority and that external reality. Martel, with multiple storylines and protagonists, doesn’t give a subjective hold on the characters, rather she uses a complexity of sounds to corral the particular to a corner of a vaster canvas.

Martel also pushes against the “unrelenting combustion engine of physical and psychic energy” of Hollywood-style narrative, its “ideology of action and spectacle” as well as melodrama. Her narratives, though tight as a well-laid trap, unfold in non-actions, misses and accidental revelations. If we could summarize the set up of most narratives as “usually…, and then, one day…” Martel’s do not leave the realm of “usually” until the very end.

Nothing much happens in La ciénaga, but that nothing much is everything. Martel shows the family as a hive of imposed closeness that leads to desire and disappointment. José’s interactions with his sister Verónica (Leonora Balcarce) are tinged with incestuousness, while the parents have nothing left but bitterness towards one another. At one point, Mecha throws her husband out of her bedroom, an action long overdue. It is represented, however, in the same laconic way as other vignettes: Mecha and Gregorio sit side by side, deflated. Her desperation is later revealed as she sits in a similar pose, this time in front of the ice machine after she has lost her servant. It isn’t an insignificant detail, as she has been shown numerous times asking Isabel to refresh her drink. Now, left to her own devices, even that simple task inspires paralysis. Mecha fears that she will become like her mother, confined to her bed for years. But throwing Gregorio out is as much a step away from him as it is a step towards her mother’s fate.

The disintegration of Tali’s marriage is equally understated. In one sequence she's filmed with a similar, and rare in Martel, pan of the camera. Tali keeps a surface calm that Mecha never achieves. We see her smile tightly, apologetically, to her husband when he finds her smoking after they've had a discussion about driving to Bolivia. Characteristically, the dramatic moment was communicated by offscreen sound. The explosion of a light bulb punctuates Tali’s frustration, after her husband has indirectly torpedoed her travel plans.

Many actions, moreover, aren’t connected to an overall plot: the characters roughouse, dance, buy a shirt. They shower, swim, fish, fill glasses with ice. Here the connections are symbolic. The image of water links but does not provide cause and effect.[13] Mostly these characters lie around. If the spectator cannot relax with them, it is because of the underlying tension in the soundtrack that keeps her alert and off-kilter.

Most critics have commented on the place of sound in La ciénaga, especially in the opening scene, in which lawn chairs are drunkenly scraped across the pavement. In an interview with Luciano Monteagudo entitled “Whispers at Siesta Time,” Martel posits that she is “more confident with sound than with the image” and goes on to claim that

“to be faithful to [a] childlike viewpoint, I worked with the idea that the sound could tell more than the image, including more than the words” (74).

Constantini notes that the first sequence's soundscape aurally prefigures many of the film’s plotlines as it weaves together on- and off-screen space, the diegetic and non-diegetic (credits and black-outs) as well as the story of the two families. We hear thunder announcing a coming storm, the grating discord of the lawn chairs, Momi’s prayer, off-screen gunshots, clinking ice cubes, glass breaking as Mecha falls, a pop song “Mala mujer” [Bad Woman”] blaring from the car speaker, the sound of the rain, the return of thunder, and Mecha’s concerned question as to the whereabouts of her son. The intertwining of the two families with the anempathetic[14] sounds (that is, sounds that seem to exhibit conspicuous indifference to what is going on in the film's plot) of the servants and townspeople, the gunshots in the distance and Mecha’s anxious question trace the film's developing tensions and its eventual quiet, devastating ending.

This ending shows a culminating shot of a ladder against a wall. The shot is held for a long time after an unsupervised and clumsy child has climbed up and lost his footing. The shot, held in silence,

“[materializes] the presentiment of death, in a bare and empty image” (Martín Morán, 236).

In his review for Slant, Ed Gonzalez frames the image's effect in terms of sound, or rather, its absence:

“A life is shattered so abruptly you might gasp — not because of the horror of the crash but because no one was there to listen.”

The audience is not made to watch (or listen to) the consequences of this loss in the characters' lives. Rather, they are made to feel it in their own body and breath.

Sebastián Montagna as the little boy Luchi exudes vulnerability, but it is not only his performance and his character’s habit of holding his breath that makes the spectator worry for him. Visuals of Luchi, who is obsessed by the story of a blood-thirsty dog who turns out to be an “African rat,” are almost always accompanied by the sound of dogs barking or walking, as though he were pursued by the hound of his imagination. Tension arises from the combination of this aural motif and Luchi’s nervous awareness.

Similarly, whenever Mecha is onscreen, telephones ring. Her inability to deal with the phone, or to get servants to answer, point to her slipping grasp on the external demands made of her. These sound motifs are precise, but subtly integrated into a naturalistic and dense soundscape. They work, moreover, on the spectator in the same way as on the characters; like Mecha, we are jangled by the phone, alert like Luchi to danger everywhere.[15]

Martel and her sound team[16] make extreme use of a fact of the watching a film:

"the experience of a film is dislocated in space, split between the visual image projected on the screen at some distance from us, and the sound which envelops and even literally touches us as the air vibrates in sympathy with the speakers to transmit the acoustic waves which give us ‘sound’"(Stilwell, 173).

As we watch Martel's work, the sensation we get of being physically close to the world she depicts results from the way she plays with this fact of sound’s intimacy. We normally only experience this envelopment consciously when rattled by blockbusters whose sounds we feel in our teeth. But sounds can work their way into our bodies less consciously, and Martel’s subtle soundscapes exploit this fully. Her sound is not necessarily experienced through the ear, but liminally, on and in the body. We vibrate with the phone and the dog barking — which we perceive consciously as sound — and imperceptibly with other sounds in the mix. She herself considers sound a means of making

“physical contact with the spectator” (School for Sound).

Working against the rush of “what’s next” of most narrative, this physical contact creates a sensory awareness in the spectator, displacing absorption in a storyline with an absorption in a “story place.”

The film’s “sonic structure” is encapsulated in this first sequence which I have described, with a complexity of noise, music, and dialogue substituting for the classical overture that plays all the themes and variations that will unfold through the musical score. The rain, thunder and breaking glass will return as sound tropes throughout. As Constantini notes, the opening sequence sets up an alternation of dense low frequency sounds (filtered and hushed) and sharp harsh noises that immerse the viewer in the space. The audio creates a constant sense of foreboding while the visuals and the story itself focus on an almost banal “day in the life.”

Oubiña comments that visually, the opening sequence also plays with convention, depriving the viewer of any visual orientation:[17]

"The first shot of La Ciénaga shows an approaching storm over a landscape of leafy vegetation, but it doesn't provide a framework for the following shots. It is not an establishing shot; it simply establishes a threat against the characters: it doesn't inform us “where” we are but “what” we might fear."

Or perhaps, the sense of “where” is claustrophobically close. There is no breathing room. Says Oubiña:

“There are no travels, no transitions, no displacements.”

The spectator is stuck, in a sense, within this emotional geography. As Kent Jones observes, Martel breaks up spaces

“into their component parts and [throws] out the center, so that the geography because strictly tied to emotions and inter-psychic connections” (24).

This sense of being “placed” inside the story world is also related to narrative point of view. In La ciénaga it is a limited one, multivalent and shifting, but associated mainly with Momi, the youngest of Mecha’s four children. As the earlier quote from Martel indicates, her choices of sound and camera position (the latter being determined by the former) are born out of this unspecified and child-like point of view:

"One thing that seems important to me about La ciénaga is that although there was no clearly defined narrator, which was a very big risk, the point of view of the narrator was not going to be me as an adult but me as a child. When you’re a child there are a lot of things you don’t understand, but you’re a lot more perceptive" (Monteagudo, 74).

Martel’s form of storytelling is not unlike what Thom describes as ideal.[18] She claims

"not to try to be descriptive because I didn’t believe showing would make things any clearer […] To understand or have a clear idea about the events you have to be patient, as with sound" (74).

This limited point of view and “intimate, tactile” sound “plunges into you,” as Martel puts it[19] (74). At the same time, camerawork and sound collude and contrast to add a sense of being both at once “inside” and “outside.” The natural world and even the homes team with noises all their own, oblivious to the human activity taking place.[20] Inside, taps run, boards creek, air conditioners hum and clank, while outside, the buzz of insects is constant. The multilevel and complex mix of distinct sounds contribute to a sense of descriptive distance while nevertheless immersing the spectator in a physical world.

Thus, for example, in one sequence the adolescents fish in the swamp. The sequence begins with close-ups of bodies, faces and machetes, while we hear people's voices, cicadas, the wind, birds, all at almost the same volume on different tracks. There is a delay before they begin to hack at the fish below the surface. As water shoots out of a tunnel, there is a cut to a long shot. Although the shot changes, the sound of the water overwhelms the scene and does not diminish with camera distance. Similarly, during a key scene that takes place in a dance hall, the spectator cannot hear the words spoken for the music.[21] A fight there between the upper class José, who feels entitled to Isabel’s attention, and the latter’s boyfriend, who is enraged by José’s unconscious arrogance, takes place in a kind of dumb show.[22] The men speak, but the music blots out the words.

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