Combustible Celluloid

Interview with Lucrecia Martel

The Nature of Water

By Jeffrey M. Anderson

Lucrecia Martel, 38, is at the head of a kind of Argentinean New Wave. Her previous feature, La Ciénaga, was an astonishing piece of work that captured a mood also present in such films as Diego Lerman's Suddenly and Adrián Caetano's Bolivia.

Martel would deny being part of such a movement, though. When I met her during the 2005 San Francisco International Film Festival, she appeared to have a whole world already stored inside of her head, distinctly apart from other films and filmmakers. At the same time, she is shy and girlish, sporting a pair of Lisa Loeb-like nerd glasses. She sits on the floor and speaks through a translator, though she occasionally breaks through with a word or two of English.

She has come to talk about her second feature, The Holy Girl, a rich and strange new feature film very much in the same ballpark as La Ciénaga. In it, a teenage girl, Amalia (Maria Alché) lives in an aging hotel with her mother (Mercedes Moran). During a medical convention, a doctor (Carlos Belloso) rubs up against Amalia in a crowd; the event stirs up a series of conflicting emotions for her. Her religious training prevents her from sex, but the encounter has left her feeling pleasurable and powerful.

"Amalia has an understanding of desire as something emanating from the divine," Martel says of her heroine, a girl with such bottomless eyes that she practically haunts the film. The writer/director reaches for my notepad to draw a likeness of the actress's eyes, showing me how her pupils are larger and how less white shows. That was the thing that Martel noticed about Alché during casting and the thing that got her the part.

Another thing about Martel's characters is that they seem to have a life outside of the film; they begin before the film begins and they continue after the film ends.

"I don't feel any need to start introducing the characters," she says. "That's not the point. It's about how it's all part of a whole process. For me writing is a whole recollection of things that have to do with memory, and especially with physical experiences."

For Martel, the story behind The Holy Girl began with a physical experience. At age 9 or 10, she used to visit a hotel similar to the one used in the movie. It was built in the late 19th century as a place for the wealthy to go and wash away the dirt of the city, to purify themselves.

"We'd walk around the spa, and without having a very precise sense of it, there was something very erotic about that place," she says. "The whole architecture was conceived around the body. So I started writing this story when I was remembering this hotel."

It's important for Martel to use her setting as part of the story, part of the whole. As a rule, she never shoots establishing shots or transition shots, which would physically separate a space from its moment in the film.

Strangely, water comes heavily into play in both films. Martel uses it in all of its forms: as a life-giver and as a destructive force or a breeding ground for disease.

"I've always tried to deny it, but I think I am quite obsessed by water. What I find fascinating is the fact that it permeates everything. It's neither good nor bad. A glass of water is good, but a tsunami is bad," she says. She explains that her next couple of projects, too, will involve water in some capacity. And, tellingly, her place of residence reveals a good deal more about her.

"I recently bought a boat," she says. "I don't have a house, but I have a boat."

April 22, 2005

Movies Unlimtied