From La Ciénaga (2001), dir. Lucrecia Martel (courtesy Criterion Collection)

When asked how she approaches identity, Argentine writer/director Lucrecia Martel told an interviewer, “When I write, I don’t think if [my character] is a man or a woman, an adult or a child. It’s better to think of them as if they were monsters.” Three of Martel’s films — La Ciénaga (2001), The Headless Woman (2008), and Zama (2018) — are now available to stream on Criterion Channel, providing an opportunity to consider how she uses the concept of the monstrous to create suspense and estrangement between her characters. Tellingly, her monsters are often women, especially in the earlier two films. Martel doesn’t deny the importance of the feminine or feminism, but rather expands and complicates how we view female agency and power. To the extent that her women stake out as big a claim to monstrosity as men, they’re certainly feminist, even if perversely so.

The opening of La Ciénaga (literally “The Swamp”), Martel’s tale of a decadent provincial family somnambulating through a crumbling hacienda, plays like a riff on The Night of the Living Dead. Goblets hold diluted wine the color of fresh blood, and wrinkled middle-aged bodies lumber on stiff legs, scraping the floor with screeching metal chairs. The monstrous is that which is socially untamable, what can’t be psychologically pinned down, and thus jolts. The film is fraught with the unspeakable: the adolescent daughter has a crush on the maid, who gets pregnant by a country boy. Two male cousins share a rough closeness that borders on lust, and one of them has sex with his aunt. Such incestuousness is Jean Racine territory, but in Martel’s hands it has the ethereal lightness of Jean Renoir’s The Rules of the Game. 

From La Ciénaga (2001), dir. Lucrecia Martel (courtesy Criterion Collection)

Martel sharpened her focus in The Headless Woman, tying it more closely to the feminine and motherhood. Verónica, a middle-aged upper-middle-class woman drives from her vacation home when, distracted while looking for her phone, she has an accident. The shot of the rear-view window makes it clear that she knows she didn’t hit a dog, as she’ll tell everyone later, but an Indigenous boy playing by the roadside. Her privilege means that her family can make the incident go away. The evidence of her taking an X-ray at the hospital while in shock disappears, as does the record of her having checked into a hotel after the accident. She makes a faint attempt to come clean, but ultimately accommodates her family instead.

Everything about Verónica is indefinite. She casually cheats on her husband with her cousin. She watches passively as others — helpers, domestics, a masseuse, often people darker-skinned than her — serve and comfort her. From the start, her bleached blonde hair and dark glasses make her look like a cutout from a magazine. Her love for her daughter humanizes her, yet also throws her selective empathy into sharp relief.

From The Headless Woman (2008), dir. Lucrecia Martel (courtesy Strand Releasing)

Here, Martel depicts the feminine as something which transgresses and violates as stingingly as the masculine. In this radical parity, a woman is not the victim, but upholds the power structure from which she personally benefits. This complicity acquires a political edge through the film’s study of ethnic and class divides. The dead boy’s race is precisely what makes it easy to disappear his death, and Veró’s impassivity with Indigenous workers echoes the casually racist jokes at the expense of Indigenous boys in La Ciénaga. Martel posits the splenetic ennui of white elites — especially white women — as being afforded by Indigenous labor.

La Ciénaga, The Headless Woman, and Zama are all available to stream on Criterion Channel.

Ela Bittencourt is a critic and cultural journalist, currently based in São Paulo. She writes on art, film and literature, often in the context of social issues and politics.