Text by Deborah Martin.
I have long been fascinated by the child’s place in the films of Lucrecia Martel, and especially the ways in which the presence of the child in her work seems to shape the form of the film, making it childish and tactile, an engagement with sensory experimentation and play which also forms part of the narratives of the films. Within this rich field I have returned frequently to one image: that of a child’s hands pressing up against the far side of a screen. This occurs in strikingly similar ways in La ciénaga/The Swamp (Martel, 2001) and La mujer sin cabeza/The Headless Woman (Martel, 2008) but also in the other film from Martel’s ‘Salta Trilogy’, La niña santa/The Holy Girl (2004). Such images gesture, variously, to Persona (Bergman, 1966), or to the visceral 1970s horror of Dario Argento. They evoke the cinema screen itself, collapsing the distance between the viewing subject and the viewed object, whilst appealing to the sense of touch, creating an intersubjective spectator-film relation.1 In the clip from La ciénaga used in Water Turtles, the skin on Luchi’s palms is moulded by the glass of the car window in a process which echoes the psychic mimesis he undergoes in narrative terms through his imaginary relationship to the film’s real and imagined animals.
A paper entitled ‘Montage, langage intérieure, mentalité primitive: Eisenstein, Vygotsky, Lévy-Bruhl’, delivered by Antonio Somaini at the Colloquium ‘Penser le cinéma au prisme de l’enfance’ at University Sorbonne Nouvelle, Paris 3 (April 2018) suggested to me a new understanding of these images of children’s hands. Somaini drew on Eisenstein’s own drawings of hands in different positions which were intended to express two different relationships to space: the pre-natal relation of the foetus and the post-natal relation to space which we come to assume as we develop as subjects (see fig. 1). Eisenstein’s drawing of a hand, palm-outwards, pressing up against the inside wall of a concave space – the pre-natal form – reminded me of Luchi’s hands and their positioning on the inside of the car windows, an echo of which also exists at the beginning of La mujer sin cabeza. I began to see these interior car spaces as uterine, and I was reminded of La ciénaga’s emphasis on suspension, on aquatic environments, on waiting, on the sticky, swampy and viscous, on mothers. I recalled Gonzalo Aguilar’s reading of the acousmêtre in Martel’s work. One of the most striking stylistic features of these films is their emphasis on sound that emanates from an unseen, off-screen source, and the ‘highly personal intra-familial associations’ (Stam, cit. Aguilar, 90) of such sound, its recalling of the child’s experience of the mother’s voice whilst in the womb.
Catherine’s methodology, which involves repeated viewing of the sequences using split screens and slow motion, allowed for much more subtle and nuanced understandings of the relationship between the two sequences to emerge: the resonances between the images themselves and the discussion of the turtles and the swimming pool; the adults which in both cases eventually encroach on or break into this sealed, child’s world; the ways in which moments of physical closeness and affection are precipitated by the presence of children and contribute to the film’s attempts to overcome bodily solitude, about which I speak more in the voiceover. Decisions we made brought new meanings to the material, or accentuated existing ones in unexpected ways: the slowing of motion in the clip from La ciénaga suggests the idea of the children moving in a viscous medium and the sense of immersion so common across Martel’s filmmaking. Its effect on their voices augments the sense of the otherworldly which is ever-present in that film and seems to refer to another moment in which the same young girls who speak here experiment with the effect on their voices of speaking into a whirring fan. The layering of images in the third section of Water Turtles creates a series of planes of focus which is characteristic of much of Martel’s filmmaking, and a series of shadowy figures in the background which recall the aesthetics of La mujer sin cabeza in particular.2 The dominant blue and green combined colour scheme of the two clips underscores the presence of the aquatic.
On watching Water Turtles for the first time, I found myself extraordinarily moved, something that I had not experienced when watching either of the sequences which appear in it. This effect seemed to be experienced by others on watching it, too; my friend, the film scholar Isabelle McNeill commented that what made the ideas in the video so moving, so ‘felt’, was ‘something about the grain of the voice’. It occurred to me that the use of voiceover itself – a disembodied and in this case, female – voice, in the context of this evocation of and meditation on intra-uterine space suggests all the more sharply the idea with which the video ends: that visual forms such as cinema can return us to this pre-history of the self.
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1) My collaborator on the video Catherine Grant has made several videos about this motif across a range of films, including one which links it to the notion of haptic visuality, film criticism and metacinematic discourse: Touching the Film Object (2011), published in two versions (one with an audio commentary) online here: “Bonus Tracks: The Making of Touching the Film Object and Skipping ROPE (Through Hitchcock’s Joins)”, Frames Cinema Journal, 1(1), 2012.
2) “Planes of Focus” was the title given to a 2011 University of Sussex symposium on the work of Lucrecia Martel. This event was organised by Catherine Grant and at it she presented the first version of a video essay about La mujer sin cabeza, which builds on this aspect of Martel’s mise en scene. The completed video essay has recently been published online: ‘El embrujo de La mujer sin cabeza‘ [‘The Haunting of The Headless Woman’ – Video and text in Spanish with English Translation], Tecmerin: Revista de Ensayos Audiovisuales, 2, Julio 2019, Español. English.
- Text and voiceover: Deborah Martin.
- Video: Catherine Grant.
- Aguilar, Gonzalo (2008). New Argentine Film: Other Worlds. New York: Palgrave Macmillan.
Catherine Grant is Professor of Digital Media and Screen Studies at Birkbeck, University of London. A prolific experimental video-essayist since 2009, she has authored and edited numerous studies of these audio-visual forms of film and moving image research and scholarship, including: The Videographic Essay: Criticism in Sound and Image (co-authored with Christian Keathley and Jason Mittell, 2nd ed., 2019); screenstudies.video (2019), a monographic website collecting and reflecting on her own practice; and another website collection The Audiovisual Essay (2014-present). She is also creator of Film Studies for Free and a co-founding editor of [in]Transition: Journal of Videographic and Moving Image Studies.
Dr Deborah Martin specialises in Latin American cinema and is particularly interested in questions of gender, sexuality, childhood, touch and embodiment in cinema. She is the author of three books, The Child in Contemporary Latin American Cinema (2019), The Cinema of Lucrecia Martel (2016), and Painting, Literature and Film in Colombian Feminine Culture 1940-2005: Of Border Guards, Nomads and Women (2012), as well as several articles and book chapters on Latin American cinema. With Deborah Shaw (Portsmouth University) she is co-editor of the book Latin American Women’s Film-making: Production, Politics, Poetics (2017). Deborah Martin is Senior Lecturer in the Department of Spanish, Portuguese and Latin American Studies, University College London.