During last night’s screening of La Ciénaga at Doc Films I noticed throughout the presentation a subtle rippling effect in the upper part of the screen. It looked as though part of the image were being projected onto a little cascade—whenever the top of the frame was bright, the light seemed to be flickering gently downward. A friend who has greater knowledge of such matters than I do explained to me afterward that this effect was a common result of wear and tear on the projector’s bulb. You can never predict just how a bulb’s aging process will play out onscreen, he said, likening that part of the projector to a living thing. (I couldn’t help but think of Byron the Bulb from Gravity’s Rainbow when he said this.)
The current Doc Films bulb seems to be growing more romantic as it enters old age. Its flickering effect, which looks so much like descending water, suggests a longing for natural beauty that exists outside the projection booth. As it made its presence felt in La Ciénaga, I was reminded of the telltale lamp in Wong Kar-wai’s Happy Together, a tourist’s memento that animates an image of Argentina’s Iguazu Falls whenever it’s turned on. In the film, the lamp acquires emotional significance for Tony Leung’s character as he keeps getting delayed in his mission to visit the Falls. It also becomes a visual metaphor for his on-again-off-again relationship with Po-wing (Leslie Cheung), which Leung allows to persist because he still cherishes the memory of when they first fell in love.
Water imagery is even more crucial to La Ciénaga. The title refers to an awful-looking swamp that sits near the home of one of the two central families, and important bits of action take place around the family’s swimming pool. In both places, the water is stagnant and full of detritus—an apt metaphor for the decadent, cluttered lives the movie depicts. Yet one of the glories of Lucrecia Martel’s movie—one of those rare debut films that communicate a fully developed worldview from the first moment on—is that it balances these images of stagnation with an irresistible sense of vibrancy. So much is going on at every moment! The decaying family estate, where a dozen or so major characters live practically on top of one another, is a hive of outsize personalities and internecine rivalries. Martel records their domestic chaos as if shooting in the middle of a hurricane. Thanks to the condition of the bulb, I was more inclined to regard the action onscreen as a force of nature.