Before this Film Club selection, I'd only ever seen Martel's films once at the time of their release, so it was really fascinating to watch this again so soon after having seen Zama in theaters. I think this is one of those 'frog in a pot of boiling water' situations, but Zama didn't strike me at the time as a huge departure in visual style from La Ciénaga because I'd been acclimating to that more refined style as it developed film by film, and seeing her debut feature again in all of its shakier, more handheld glory made it inescapably obvious how much ground she's covered in reaching the much more formally rigorous and carefully composed imagery in her most recent work.
One thing that hasn't changed much is the unavoidable significance of the sound design in Martel's films. La Ciénaga is roiling with noise, from thunder to traffic to animals and children braying to echoing gunshots and incessantly ringing phones - a cacophony which makes the silence during and after Lucio's death all the more striking. One of the Criterion release's extras features Martel explaining how she installed a very specifically textured tile for the poolside area to make just the right grating clatter as the deck chairs are dragged across it when the herd of intoxicated adults decide a location shift is in order, so it doesn't seem out of line to say that in this first work she perhaps pays more attention to the sound of her film than its images, as striking as many of them are.
Another element that carries over throughout Martel's work is the constant sense of danger or impending injury, which feels more explicit in this film than the others: a scene that made me physically tense up even knowing no one was going to be hurt, the moment in the river with teens hacking wildly with machetes while others point and float right next them also made me want to yell "Be careful, goddamn it!" at the screen like an old lady hectoring kids playing near the street. One spends the whole film (which is book-ended by accidents) waiting for disaster - whether while a kid casually holds a shotgun with the barrel pointed at his friend's face or when a teenager without a license drives in reverse in the rain - only for it ultimately to be the parents who spend the whole film anxious about their kids' safety at Mecha's decrepit estate who suffer a loss in their own home, because of a risk they foresaw and actively tried to prevent. I'm still not entirely sure how to take that turn of events, because it seems such a pointed and precise irony that it must be part of Martel's social critique, but it also feels as if the film is not nearly so critical of Tali and her family as it is Mecha and her household. These aren't entirely dissonant observations, but enough so to me that I'm still not sure what the intent was there.
Probably my favorite element that stood out on this viewing was Momi's halting, pathetic objectification of Isabel, the house servant who also suffers under a different sort of attention from Mecha, who can't resist insulting and accusing her even as Isabel helps her into a car to go to the hospital. The contrast between the mother and daughter's representation of different sides of the same coin of classism and racism stood out, especially given the disdain that Momi and Mecha clearly have for each other; to Isabel, they're just different limbs on the same nattering, pleading, needy, hostile creature, or maybe the different rows of teeth in the mouth of the proverbial African rat-dog that devours the other household pets.