Written on Water
This article appeared in the April 20, 2023 edition of The Film Comment Letter, our free weekly newsletter featuring original film criticism and writing. Sign up for the Letter here.
Trenque Lauquen (Laura Citarella, 2022)
The opening scenes of Trenque Lauquen plunge the viewer in medias res into the search for a missing botanist named Laura (Laura Paredes), an ultimately fruitless venture carried out by her boyfriend, Rafael (Rafael Spregelburd), and her coworker-cum-confidante, Ezequiel (Ezequiel Pierri). But Laura Citarella’s uncanny epic, named for the Argentine town where the film takes place, is not the kind of detective story whose secrets are later explained by hard facts. André Breton wrote that he was “interested only in books left ajar, like doors; I will not go looking for keys.” Citarella’s film opens door after door, its pleasures rooted in the very principle of investigation.
Early on in the two-part film, which altogether runs over four hours, we learn in flashbacks that before disappearing, Laura had discovered a series of letters hidden within the pages of library books. These erotic correspondences, exchanged in the 1960s by a schoolteacher, Carmen Zuna, and her Italian inamorato, Paolo Bertino, bewitch Laura and pull her into their libidinal orbit. She neglects her research project on flowers, consumed instead by the desire to learn more about Carmen and Paolo’s torrid affair. But why? Ezequiel poses exactly this question, and Laura responds by pointing him to an excerpt from one of Paolo’s letters: “My phallus is a poor innocent. A poor blind man who has entered the jungle and cannot leave. I am crying. I am a castaway. I am lost.”
“She’s the mystery,” concludes Ezequiel. Yes, but this is also Paolo’s way of describing having fallen in love. If the fickle and sprawling intrigues of Trenque Lauquen are about any one thing, it is love—love that casts a spell not unlike that of a painting or a novel, captivating you with a force and clarity that cannot be defined. It mocks the pretenses of empirical inquiry, as Citarella suggests by introducing the film, at first, as merely a mystery about a missing woman. Laura eventually absconds without her personal belongings and leaves behind a single clue—an incantatory note that foregrounds Citarella’s obscure atmospherics. “Adios, Adios. Me Voy, Me Voy,” it reads.
Shifting tonal registers and points-of-view throughout, Trenque Lauquen defies the strictures of any single genre, drawing elements of everything from the romantic melodrama to the science-fiction thriller into its fold. Citarella unravels the story over 12 chapters, each one in some way connected to the disappearance of Laura, but loosely bound in a digressive, almost absent-minded, manner. Laura guests on a radio show hosted by Juliana (Juliana Muras), who may or may not be the daughter of Carmen and Paolo. At one point, Laura is visited by what she thinks is a ghost; later, she becomes something like a Renfield to this blue-eyed apparition and her blonde lover. The sapphic, seemingly supernatural couple are the guardians of an unseen creature—a boy? A monkey? An alligator?—lurking in the town lake.
The film’s protean structure and penchant for the fantastical recall other, similarly labyrinthine titles from El Pampero Cine, the Argentine production company of which Citarella, along with La Flor director Mariano Llinás, is a key member. Indeed, Trenque Lauquen embodies what the writer Jorge Luis Borges (a lodestar for El Pampero’s cinematic gardens of forking paths) called works of “reasoned imagination”—like Henry James’s The Turn of the Screw or Adolfo Bioy Casares’s The Invention of Morel, it is a story that produces fascination without relinquishing its connection to reality.
Like the town itself, Trenque Lauquen is deceptively modest in visual style but subtly imbued with an otherworldly ethos. The performances are low-key, even minimalistic in the case of Pierri’s Ezequiel, whose robust beard seems to limit his range of expression to flickers of his eyes and brows. Much of the action unfolds against a backdrop of squat, unremarkable buildings, while muted greens and grays dominate the flat grasslands and scraggly brush where Laura collects samples of local flower specimens. Yet the playfully imperious score by Gabriel Chwojnik wafts over these seemingly banal settings with an air of the sublime. Texts (like Carmen and Paolo’s letters) and oral storytelling (Laura records an account of her encounters with the phantom women, which forms the voiceover for the film’s second part) conjure the town’s secrets at a remove, articulating them as crafty narratives within the narrative. These accounts are pointedly subjective—perhaps even products of delusions.
Carmen Zuna is one such nebulous narrative, an elusive presence in the town’s records. She can, Ezequiel deduces, be seen in old photographs, yet she is never named, and no one in Trenque Lauquen seems to know who she is. She would be lost to time, Citarella suggests, were it not for the heat of Paolo’s desire, preserved in the letters dispersed throughout the library. His ache is generative, inspiring not just an archive but also new yearnings in the present. Ezequiel ultimately comes to share Laura’s obsession and, in fantasy sequences, inserts himself into the epistolary yarn, as his own longing for Laura starts to mirror Paolo’s for Carmen. Yet it is Laura’s passion that determines the film’s currents, taking us from Carmen Zuna to the spectral couple to a kind of Tarkovskian “zone” where the mystery driving Laura seems, finally, to be the enigma of her own desires. In Trenque Lauquen’s final moments, her actions are as oblique as ever. The door remains open.
Beatrice Loayza is a writer and editor who contributes regularly to The New York Times, The Criterion Collection, Artforum, 4Columns, and other publications.