I was blown away by this debut feature from Lucrecia Martel, an Argentine director who had previously worked in television. Translated as “The Swamp” or “The Bog”, La Ciénaga explores the relationship between two cousins: Mecha, a bourgeois alcoholic drinking herself to death in the shadow of the mountains; and Tali, a harried city-dweller looking for a more temporary escape for a few days at Mecha’s house.
The title metaphor steers the film capably; the sweltering summer heat permeates every frame, as the two families wallow and suffer through both the temperature and the travails of their bankrupt existence. But the film’s crucifixion of the Argentine middle-class was, to my mind, secondary to a pervasive, pleasantly nostalgic focus on the burgeoning sexuality of Mecha and Tali’s children.
The roaring sexual tension between the children, not only the second cousins but the brothers and sisters, is beautifully conveyed by fine performances and a camera seemingly fueled by the jittery, horny fire of adolescence. There is nothing perverse or exploitative; sweaty and half clothed, the children can’t help but stare a little too long, to sneak into a shower together or lay sprawled atop a bed in a room filled with shade. It is a powerful and evocative sort of collective Bildungsroman, a confusing, memorable summer. Indeed, the summer’s climax is a rare, true shock; a sharp finale after a tense, meandering wade into the swamp.