Thursday, June 10, 2010

The Holy Girl (Lucrecia Martel, 2004)

The films of Argentine auteur Lucrecia Martel are some of the more enigmatic and wonderful cinematic discoveries I've made in the past year. Characterized by their hypnotic pacing and subtle tensions, Martel's work is often sensitive to race and class, and intensely interested in the fragility of the human psyche and the malleability of perception. The first of her three feature films to date, 2001's La Cienaga (The Swamp), was an eerie and atmospheric look at a pair of households coping with the extreme summer heat amidst bubbling familial tensions. Her most recent film was 2008's The Headless Woman, a quiet portrait of a woman who experiences amnesia and complete emotional disconnect after possibly running over and killing another person with her automobile. While La Cienaga entranced me from the beginning and felt as assured as any feature debut I've seen in recent memory, my first viewing of The Headless Woman left me a bit cold, I'll be honest. But images and moments lingered in my mind, and subsequent viewings have convinced me that the latter is indeed a near-masterpiece; a complex and elliptical examination of a mind quietly ravaged by guilt, staggering in both it's emotional subtlety and lyricism, all anchored by the phenomenal performance of Maria Onetto as the titular woman-sans-cabeza. I was eager to bridge my experiences with these two haunting works by watching Martel's 2004 feature, suggestively titled The Holy Girl. Thankfully, it proved to be every bit as challenging and fascinating a film as the other two.

The Holy Girl primarily takes place in a decrepit old Argentine hotel named Hotel Termas. The hotel is run by Helena (Mercedes Moran), who lives there along with her daughter, a teenager named Amalia (a memorable Maria Alche), who always seems to be wearing a perpetual scowl to match her cold eyes. Amalia is a student at an all girl Catholic school, along with her best friend Josefina (Julieta Zylberberg), and when the pair are not in class, they spend their time wandering the old hotel and gossiping and flirting with boys. A medical convention is set to take place within the hotel in a matter of days, and as the film starts we witness doctors from all over arriving for the event. We will follow one of the doctors in particular, Dr. Jano (Carlos Belloso), a meek Otolaryngologist who has left his family back home while he attends the conference. One day after school, Amalia is watching a street musician perform, and Dr. Jano casually slinks up behind her and begins grinding his crotch on her behind. He walks away a short time later, leaving Amalia standing in a profound daze, stunned and trying to make sense of what's just happened. It is indeed part of the great mystery of The Holy Girl exactly what effect the incident has had on Amalia, and soon she begins stalking Jano, sneaking up on him in public places for moments of transient physical contact, and even spying on him as he relaxes in the hotel pool in one particularly memorable scene. Meanwhile, Jano has attracted the eye of Helena, who is charmed and intrigued by the quiet doctor, and the two begin something of a courtship, Helena having no clue that Jano has molested her daughter, and Jano being entirely unaware that Helena is Amalia's mother. Martel follows these stories with an observant eye as they eventually converge and lead to an unpredictable yet inevitable ending, one which contains secrets spilled, lives changed and bonds stronger than ever.

And yet, by the end of The Holy Girl, much like Martel's other films, not much feels resolved. There is a deep ambiguity in the way Martel seems to analyze her characters without speculating; we still, for instance, don't know what to make of Amalia by the end of the film. She consciously makes the decision to take Jano on as her "mission", but to what end? It is fascinating to watch as the relationship between Amalia's actions and intentions become increasingly more complex and difficult to discern. Is she using the molestation simply as a way of empowering herself with the ability to forgive? Is this need triggered by a possible lack of faith that lies beneath her stoic, deliberate exterior? Or is she simply using the situation as a means of exploring her budding sexuality in a way that doesn't compromise her religious ideals? Are the events in the film the actions of a cunning, curious youth, or something more ominous? Who exactly is the victim by the film's end? The questions are complex and endless, and there are no easy answers. Martel reserves all judgement, and the film benefits tremendously, leaving the viewer with an array of rich and challenging possibilities to ponder.

Martel has cast her film wisely, and the acting in The Holy Girl as a whole is nothing short of excellent. Alche as Amalia is sympathetic and mysterious, with a hint of menace in her burning stare, one that almost suggests a creepy omnipresence. Her and Zylberberg do tremendous jobs of depicting young women for whom sexual awakening is right on the cusp, and yet still possess a great deal of immaturity, as evident in their indulgence in urban legends and frivolous gossip and displays of careless physical dares. Mercedes Moran as the mother gives a wonderful performance as a kindhearted woman jaded by years of business and scorned love, one whose hardened facade slips away in a moments notice with the slightest bit of emotional attention paid to her. And Carlos Belloso inhabits his role as Jano, playing the perverted doctor at exactly the right pitch, as a man painted into an increasingly smaller corner, keeping one eye open at all times with an innocuous yet worried smile plastered on his face, as though he's afraid the mask will fall off at any moment. Even the supporting actors offer up lasting impressions, in particular the stunningly gorgeous Mia Maestro as the school teacher who's the source of gossip, and Alejandro Urdapilleta as Amalia's uncle Freddy, whose a-little-to-close-for-comfort relationship with Helena carries a creepy ambiguity all its own.

Martel's strong sense of atmosphere has always been one of the aspects of her cinema that's resonated with me the most (just watch the first 5 minutes of La Cienaga as an example), and again it carries a strong presence in The Holy Girl, with the dilapidated, ramshackle old hotel, somehow evocative in its grimy drabness, providing an appropriately moody setting for the simmering and mysterious emotional undercurrents running throughout the film. Martel in particular makes wonderful use of the hotel's swimming pool (swimming pools are prominent in all of Martel's films), a dirty and lonesome location where some of the film's strangest moments take place. Martel's films are also notable for their intricately detailed sound design, and again this is quite prominent in The Holy Girl, where (similarly to The Headless Woman) important conversations and snippets of dialogue and significant noises are occasionally heard off-screen, mixed-in with the ambiance of the busy hotel, and so the challenge is up to the viewer to - in addition to soaking in the images - sift through the audio for pertinent info, resulting in an uncommonly demanding (and extremely rewarding) viewing experience, even for the most ardent of cinephiles.

"What makes a story or what it tells" says Martel on a making-of feature from the DVD of The Holy Girl "isn't something so cerebral and direct. It's very emotional and mysterious." This stands out to me as a wonderful approach for one to take towards her work. Martel's cinema isn't satisfying in a traditional sense. Her films ask for high levels of attention from the eyes, ears, and brain, as well as a significant amount of patience, and even then a single viewing is sometimes not enough for a viewer to digest the experience. In fact, her films often feel like ones that are designed to be tough to digest on first viewings, films whose first viewings function in effect as primers for the second viewing. But when her work hits - as it did in a very big way for me with The Holy Girl - it hits on a profoundly affecting and mysterious level. The Holy Girl, like both La Cienaga and The Headless Woman, is a haunting examination of the mysteries of human nature, one which appeals to the intellect by way of its searingly complex and cryptic emotional pull, and one that challenges the viewer to a degree that not many films do these days. It's an experience that I won't soon forget, and a more than worthy entry in the young filmography of one of world cinema's most unique and talented voices.


Sam Juliano said...

"While La Cienaga entranced me from the beginning and felt as assured as any feature debut I've seen in recent memory, my first viewing of The Headless Woman left me a bit cold, I'll be honest. But images and moments lingered in my mind, and subsequent viewings have convinced me that the latter is indeed a near-masterpiece; a complex and elliptical examination of a mind quietly ravaged by guilt, staggering in both it's emotional subtlety and lyricism, all anchored by the phenomenal performance of Maria Onetto as the titular woman-sans-cabeza."

Well Drew, I must admit I felt the same way that you did on first viewing, and when I left Manhattan's Film Forum I was shaking my head, not understanding all the praise. The approach here is punishing for the viewer, as the subtlety seems to mask a superficiality at the center. There isn't much of an emotional connection to Vero, even if 'emotional disconnection' is really the point. She may well be "out of sync with her own existence" as TIME OUT NEW YORK'S Keith Ulrich contends, but the film disavows character development and plods along with an episodic narrative arc that quickly loses steam, turning the film into a doomed endurance test.

Yet, it has many supporters, and your utterly enthralling defense here (not to mention a staggering review of this earlier film, which I haven't seen to this point) cries out for a re-viewing and re-appraisal. I hope to get this opportunity soon.

But I am really floored by the brilliant observations and writing here.

Drew McIntosh said...

As always, thanks for the excellent comment and kind words, Sam.

Your pointed thoughts on The Headless Woman do in fact very much mirror my own initial feelings. It is definitely an enigmatic and polarizing work, and one that I was not able to shake despite not having a great first experience with it.

For me, the film really works in how it takes the focus of this one characters subjectivity and manages to spin a kind of ominous nightmare logic in the events that follow. If you will allow to likewise quote another review, this one from David Phelps on Mubi: "Take it as a mood piece. The mood is dread. "

Though there is excellent reason we shouldn't feel an emotional connection with the character due to her abhorrent actions, Onetto's performance is one of such subtle power and complexity that I have found myself in repeated viewings having an unexpectedly emotional reaction to the film. This to me is a pretty significant accomplishment. I also find it interesting how the film can work as a thriller, too (Did she or didn't she? Find the clues!), however I admittedly find that aspect decidedly less interesting.

As for The Holy Girl, I obviously highly recommend it, and Sam I would of course be highly interested in hearing your thoughts on The Headless Woman, were you to ever give that one a second viewing.

Simon said...

Now I want to see this. More list. Great.

Drew McIntosh said...

Be sure to drop a line if you end up giving this one a watch, Simon. Would love to hear your reaction.