There is something fetid at the heart of the family in La Cienaga—the title translates as “the swamp”—and if writer-director Lucrecia Martel never quite names it, she certainly manages to evoke the atmosphere of sweaty, sticky malaise from which it arises.
Largely set in a deteriorating vacation home in rural Argentina, the movie opens on a group of lethargic, drunken, middle-aged adults sunbathing besides a dirty, leaf-strewn pool. The mother of the family who lives there (Graciela Borges) shakes a glass of ice, and like zombies the others rise from their chairs and start shuffling toward her in medium shot, their faces above the frame but their glasses outstretched for more wine (some strange variety that’s the vibrant color of movie blood).
Meanwhile, in the house, the woman’s teen daughters lounge about on their beds, one of them (Sofia Bertolotto) pining for the family’s indigenous maid (Andrea Lopez). When their older brother (Juan Cruz Bordeu) comes to visit, he joins in on the listlessness, occasionally flirting with one sister (Leonora Balcarce) and, at other times, his mother. All the while, the father (Martin Adjemian) stumbles around in a drunken stupor and a tween brother (Diego Baenas) with a damaged eye runs about in the forest with a shotgun, seemingly determined to shoot his other eye out.
There is a bit of Bunuelian humor here (when the mother falls by the pool and seriously cuts herself on a broken wine glass, the other adults barely bother to glance her way), as well Bunuel’s keen eye for issues of class (the mother refers to the maid and another indigenous servant as “savages”). The sexual unease, meanwhile—particularly as it pertains to the two teen daughters—has the intuitive intimacy of Sofia Coppola. Ultimately, however, Martel establishes a cinema all her own, one of clever composition, fluid camerawork, and atmospheric sound, all of which combine to make the air equally thick with boredom and dread. It’s unfortunate that this milieu dissipates when La Cienaga makes a last-minute turn toward awful, explicit tragedy. The torpor we’d previously experienced was far more authentically realized—and tragic enough.