The first image is leisure as nightmare. The camera stays uncomfortably close to the middle-aged bodies of a group of unidentified sunbathers, lounging around a fetid pool. We don’t see faces, just their protruding bellies, gray chest hair, sagging skin. Thunder rumbles in the distance, and the bathers begin dragging their metal lounge chairs across the concrete tiles. The noise is hideous, like a banshee.
This unsettling opening marks the beginning of 2001’s “La Cienaga,” and the beginning of the film career of Argentine director Lucrecia Martel. Much of what viewers find fascinating about Martel’s films can be found in that beginning — elliptical narratives, an emphasis on sound, and subtle explorations of class divisions deeply embedded in character. The film is just out in a new edition on Blu-ray and DVD from the Criterion Collection.
Eventually, these sunbathers come into focus. They are an upper-class family whiling away a fetid summer at their estate (“La Cienaga” translates as “The Swamp”). The kids are full of destructive energy, slap-fighting and wrestling and hunting animals in the forest. The adults sit around in a drunken stupor, barely able to function; they hardly rouse themselves when the family matriarch, Mecha, takes a fall by the pool, badly gashing herself.
As she recuperates, her cousin Tali and her family come from the city to stay with the family. Cousins, siblings, parents, children, all tumble over each other in the course of summer, their casualness with each other almost incestuous. A sense of dread as palpable as the humidity permeates these seemingly languid scenes. When the children go fishing, happily waving around machetes, it seems impossible that nobody will get hurt.
Martel films it all in a very oblique, impressionistic style, often making the audience work to understand the connections and the tensions between the characters. (Why does Mecha banish her drunken husband to a back bedroom? Why does he so meekly agree?) Eventually, threads begin to emerge. After the fishing scenes, the children come home with a few bottom-feeding fish, and one of Mecha’s sons throws them in the mud in front of the servants’ quarters, declaring “only Indians will eat that shit.” In the next scene, an Indian maid is serving the rich family a new dish she calls “catfish stew.” Her face betrays nothing.
Eventually, the tragedy that we’ve been bracing ourselves for does come to pass, but it also causes barely a ripple in the family’s stupor. Like “Rules of the Game,” “La Cienaga is a perceptive film about how the rich are so very different from you and me. But not necessarily any happier.
The bonus features are rather light for a Criterion disc, but there’s a terrific interview with Martel. Smoking a cigar in half-shadow, she explains her philosophies of filmmaking, including her take on why sound is so important on in film: “The eye perceives. The ear receives.”