The title of Lucrecia Martel's unsettling debut feature La Ciénaga translates roughly as "The Swamp," and there may be no better word to describe the sticky bog that creeps over its characters' ankles, literally and metaphorically. Even the narrative stalls out in the muck: Save for the alarming events that bookend the film, nothing much happens beyond suggestion and observation, apart from a steady, patient accumulation of minor details. With an anthropologist's eye for behavior, Martel plants her camera in a crowded bourgeois estate in northwestern Argentina and watches the decaying lives of two families rotting in a provincial backwater. Echoes of Luis Buñuel's social comedies are unmistakable, but Martel examines the situation from a greater remove, relying mainly on subtle touches in the framing and on the dense soundtrack. In that sense, La Ciénaga could be called a pointillist movie, with all the pleasures and frustrations that description implies.
Any thought that the film might follow narrative rules is extinguished within the first reel, when it becomes clear that time will creep along at a pace dictated by the dog days of Argentinean summer. Much like The Leopard or The Garden Of The Finzi-Continis, La Ciénaga centers on an aristocratic family that's dangerously insulated from the outside worldin this case, a household lorded over by two drunks who lounge by a fetid swimming pool. When Graciela Borges falls flat onto the shards of a broken wine glass, her children rush her to the city hospital, since her pathetic husband (Martín Adjemián) is too sloshed to stand up. After arriving in the city, they meet up with Borges' poorer cousin, Mercedes Morán, a perpetually harried housewife whose four young children are allowed to run loose like animals. When the two families intermingle on Borges' estate, it's a fascinating study of contrasts, with painfully apparent class differences and crippling dysfunction.
With its dogged aversion to anything resembling melodrama, La Ciénaga leaves about a dozen minor conflicts and subplots to simmer in the margins, until a revelation as major as incest takes a back seat to the question of whether to buy school supplies for cheap in neighboring Bolivia. The near-total absence of storytelling momentum takes some adjustmentMartel's superior follow-up, the soon-to-be-released The Holy Girl, takes baby steps toward conventionbut it's sustaining enough just to soak in the thick atmosphere. By their nature, movies limit the senses to sight and sound, but Martel creates a world so hazy, dense, and oppressive that it has a tactile quality, hot as the jungle intruding on the estate's borders. Adventurous viewers are advised to pack their mosquito nets.