Theres no question Argentinean director Lucrecia Martel is talented. With only two features to her name, she displays a masterful artistic touch, delivering uncomfortably personal stories with clarity. Her latest film, The Holy Girl, is clearly influenced by the work of Luis Buñuel and Pedro Almodóvar (whos an executive producer for this film). However, it has a dizzy, dreamlike quality that leaves the audience disoriented and, unfortunately, emotionally unmoved.
From the very first scene, Martels camera hovers uncomfortably close to the characters without providing any reference point or exposition. The effect is not unlike claustrophobia.
Thrown into the everyday clamor and clutter of a family-run hotel during a medical conference, the audience is left stranded, struggling to work out whats happening and whose story were supposed to follow. It takes some getting used to, but eventually the relationships sort themselves out and a tangled plotline emerges.
Helena (the hypnotic Mercedes Morán) plays host to a gathering of indulgent and self-obsessed physicians while struggling with the news that her ex-husband has fathered twins with his new wife. Lonely but composed, she finds herself drawn to the quietly sensitive and very married Dr. Janos (Carlos Belloso). Unbeknownst to her, however, Janos has the disturbing habit of seeking out public crowds where he can press his crotch against the asses of young schoolgirls. To make matters worse, his latest victim is none other than Helenas 16-year-old daughter, Amalia (María Alche).
Impressionable and wide-eyed about her budding sexuality, Amalia interprets this casual molestation as a religiously significant event. Mixing hormonal desires with Catholic fervor, she sets out to save and seduce the mild-mannered doctor.
Theres a moment of cinematic electricity when Janos, for the second time, positions himself behind Amalia only to feel the girls fingers reach back to caress him. The look of shame and horror on his face reveals a man who is more miserable than monster. In fact, once Janos learns Amalias identity, hes compelled to confess his deeds to the girls mother. Unfortunately, Helena has developed deeply romantic yearnings for him. Irony abounds as his boorish colleagues make drunken passes at the house staff while Janos battles with tortured restraint.
Despite her subversive and highly personal approach to storytelling, Martel imposes a chilly, almost dispassionate, atmosphere upon the story. We never connect emotionally with the characters and all her labored intimacy ends up being for naught.
Furthermore, the films final act presents us with an elaborate set of circumstances that snowballs toward what should be an explosive confrontation. But Martel withholds the inevitable conflagration, deliberately ending the film moments before we can witness the full force of the havoc.
Showing at the Maple Art Theatre (4135 W. Maple Rd., Bloomfield Hills; 248-263-2111).
Jeff Meyers writes about film for MetroTimes. Send comments to [email protected].