What to make of a film that has just placed 38th in Sight and Sound’s best films of 2023 poll, but which also came 39th in the same poll in 2022? On the long road from festival premiere via gathering word of mouth to UK release this week, Laura Citarella’s 12-chaptered, four-and-a-half hour long mystery drama Trenque Lauquen has clearly picked up a steady crowd of fans among the voting bodies. How fitting that, like the film itself, they should be split into two parts.
Trenque Lauquen (‘round lake’) is a town in the Pampas grasslands of Argentina where a woman, a botanist called Laura, has gone missing. Two men – boyfriend Rafa (Rafael Spregelburd) and colleague Ezequiel (Ezequiel Pierri) – are looking for her, but as the film takes various forking paths we learn that Laura was also embarked on an investigation of her own. And this intrigue involves love letters found in library books, the hunt for a rare plant species and, by part II, the suggestion of a Loch Ness monster-type creature lurking in a lake.
As the plot deepens, Citarella’s mutating enigma of a film feels by turns like a Borges story, a Tintin comic, an Antonioni film, a 50s monster movie and a multitude of other things besides. It’s also a sequel of sorts: Laura is played by Laura Paredes, the film’s co-writer, who had also played the same Laura in Citarella’s 2011 film Ostende.
With both parts of Trenque Lauquen being released together this week, we talked to Citarella about the film’s six-year production, why it’s also a movie about its own making, and her role in the El Pampero Cine filmmaking collective, which has previously given us such like-minded adventures in narrative as Extraordinary Stories (2008) and the legendary 14-hour La flor (2018).
How did Trenque Lauquen grow out of Ostende? Why did you want to return to the character of Laura played by Laura Peredes?
I wanted to go back to the idea of a character that is a kind of detective, who is looking at reality and listening to things and rebuilding fiction from elements of the world. The idea of bringing the character to different towns in the province of Buenos Aires quickly came to my mind, and particularly bringing them to Trenque Lauquen, which is the town where my family comes from.
Given that it’s a town you’re very familiar with, what was it about the character or the atmosphere of the place that you wanted to convey on screen?
With these kinds of small towns, usually you think you know them very well, but you don’t know all the secrets hidden in different places. It was funny to think, where can we find small mysteries in this town? And suddenly the library occurred to me. It was also interesting for me to portray all the places and the habits of the people. For example, you see the radio station. My uncle is one of the guys who delivers the late programme. He’s not an actor.
Was the story all fixed in advance before you started this six-year shoot, or did it evolve during production?
There was a script at the beginning, but it had a lot of lagoons, a lot of missing things. We started working with that script, and then I got pregnant. We continued working, but then we stopped, because I had a baby. I started editing what we had done before, and in that moment we understood that the structure was not working very well. So we started rewriting it. In a way, we reinvented it also, because we spread a lot of things that were working throughout the film and we took out a lot of things that were not working. And it got bigger and bigger and bigger.
You must have started filming this while La flor, which you produced, was still being finished. Was it challenging to juggle the overlap of such huge narrative labyrinths?
Yes, of course. With La flor, we learned a lot about how to produce, how to experiment, how to rethink the ways of producing, and how to keep your enthusiasm for many years to continue working on the film. But with La flor, you could think it’s like six different films, because the episodes are very different. In the case of Trenque Lauquen, it is only one story. This juggling is something you can do for a period of your life; I’m not sure if I can do this 10 years from now. In the middle of everything, we had kids, we started making another kind of project, you become older.
I wanted to ask about Antonioni, because the first chapter’s called ‘La aventura’, and it obviously centres on the search for a missing woman. Later on, we also see a sort of mushroom-shaped building, like a kind of control tower, which seems like an echo of a similar structure Antonioni shows in L’avventura (1960). How important was that influence here?
When I went to Trenque Lauquen in 2016, I started going to different towns along Route 33, like América and Fortín Olavarría. In Fortín Olavarría, everything was closed and it was like a ghost town. So I was very interested in inventing something there. I remembered that in L’avventura, there’s this small town called Noto that they go to look for her [the woman played by Lea Massari] and everything is closed. I wanted to bring this to a small town in the Pampas. Also I thought it was good to use L’avventura as protection for the film. Because nowadays, if you make a film about a woman who goes missing, usually this is understood by audiences as something that could be dangerous or that she’s crazy. How did Antonioni manage to show that somebody just left without any suppositions about that escape?
1950s sci-fi was also an influence here. I love the use of the theremin in the score in the second part, which is an instrument associated with that era of B-movies. Were there sci-fi films that you looked to for this?
One of the films in my head was Creature from the Black Lagoon (1954). There’s another one that is not so good, but it really kept my attention – Attack of the 50 Foot Woman (1958). All those films made on the B side of the industry by people like Jacques Tourneur and Jack Arnold. There are many other films that were involved in the process – for example, the recording of Laura that we hear from the radio reminded me of Double Indemnity (1944). But yes, for a while I was very focused on watching all the science fiction films of that period. And also reading writers like Ursula K. Le Guin.
I was interested to read you saying in Le Monde that every film is based on mystery. Could you expand on what you meant by that?
I don’t know about every film, but for me the most beautiful thing that happens when we are making films is when you can let the images be free; let them not be conclusive. It’s something that allows you to continue expanding the universe of the fiction and the different possibilities of the fiction in a nonstop way. This film has a mutating structure that is changing all the time and it’s not arriving at anything in particular. That’s something that you can find in novels, but for some reason in cinema you always need to close the sense, maybe it’s because the image is not so ambiguous, because when you see an image you have all the information there.
This structure allows you to have a suspended mystery. You have to renew the mystery and never understand it. Because if you understand it, you will lose something. There will no longer be mystery. This was the clue for Trenque Lauquen, because it starts in a way that you feel that you will finally understand something, because the two guys in the first part, especially Rafael, are trying to be very literal with understanding why Laura left. He tries to find the answer in a book. He reads the book and he says, “Oh, this is the reason why.” He has this idea of solving problems in the world, but then when you go to the second part, you start losing the voiceover, the film starts being more silent and it starts not depending so much on the language of what is said.
If you get into that mystery and let the mystery be something that has no explanation, then you will enjoy that part much more.
That’s what I’ve loved about all of the El Pampero Cine films, that joy in narrative and a story that continually evolves and intrigues. It feels otherwise quite out of fashion in cinema at the moment.
Yes, but storytelling is not such a very good friend for us. When we used to go to find funding for our films, at a funding lab for example, the storytelling is considered the main importance of the film. I think we work the other way around. With Trenque Lauquen, I had the actress and I had the locations and the atmosphere, but I didn’t know what I was going to tell.
Trenque Lauquen is a fiction, which is an excuse to portray a town. People want a story to be told, because this is a way that they get into the film and into the atmosphere. But in the end, I think that there’s something more: it’s not only about a portrait of the town, but also a portrait of us making the film. It’s a document of its own shooting. That’s something that’s forbidden, or that has to be hidden, in TV series or mainstream films.
For example, my husband Ezequiel is not an actor. The character was written for him, but when he is performing this character, which has his own name, he’s also performing himself – he’s a real element in the film. For me, those kinds of elements are more important than the storytelling.
The script is what is commanding cinema and on streaming platforms nowadays. We [at El Pampero Cine] are out of time, I think. We are not contemporary filmmakers.
Trenque Lauquen Parts I and II are out in cinemas and Curzon Home Cinema on 8 December.
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