Wildly talented Argentinean director Lucrecia Martel makes the sort of movies that would lead screenwriting gurus like Syd Field and Robert McKee to hurl themselves out of windows. She doesn't care about cleanly establishing the conflict within a scene, or even dramatizing it more than necessary, and she's content to leave matters unresolved if that better teases an audience's imagination. She likes to plop her camera down in the middle of the action and simply evoke her characters' lives through tiny emphatic gestures, like a close-up slightly askew or an isolated noise on the soundtrack. The title of Martel's debut feature, La Ciénaga, translates roughly as "the swamp," and its most lasting impression is how vividly she captures the thick, perfumed air of a backwater estate during the dog days of Argentina's summer. No less oblique in its effects, Martel's beguiling follow-up The Holy Girl takes place largely in a second-rate hotel, where the tight interiors contribute to a mood of suffocated eroticism.
Though introduced as a standard Lolita type, with her Catholic-schoolgirl clothes and eyes that naturally droop into a sultry gaze, María Alché is just emerging from pre-sexual innocence, and her new awareness frightens her as much as it makes her curious. Though her more developed best friend (Julieta Zylberberg) whispers poisonous gossip about their pious teacher and an older man, Alché is really set off by an incident in which married doctor Carlos Belloso presses himself against her on a crowded street. Unsure how to respond, Alché follows Belloso around the hotel where she and her mother (Mercedes Morán) reside, and where Belloso is staying for a medical conference. Things grow more tangled when Morán, a still-beautiful woman whose loneliness betrays a hint of desperation, takes a romantic interest in Belloso, who reacts to the whole situation with intense discomfort.
Once Belloso's wife and kids show up at the end of the conference, The Holy Girl seems primed for an explosive melodramatic finale, but Martel almost perversely directs her attention elsewhere. Normally, coming-of-age movies are told from a fixed perspective, but Martel gives time to a broad constellation of characters in the hotel, and to the atmosphere of decay and despair that permeates it. Meanwhile, Alché's obsession with Belloso comes to life through a series of minor behavioral details, like the smell of shaving cream behind his ears, or a scene in which she watches him swim while mechanically reciting a religious mantra. Adjusting to Martel's style requires patience, but her indirection pays dividends, culminating in an unforgettable final shot that flies in the face of narrative expectations.