If you don’t hear the phrase ‘New Argentine Cinema’ much these days, perhaps that’s because the ‘new’ feels redundant. For decades, it has seemed that even to be an Argentine indie film is to be bracingly different, determined to bend, twist or shatter storytelling conventions in pursuit of some grace or truth.
More than any single auteur, it is the filmmaking collective El Pampero Cine that has been stretching Argentine narrative experimentation – and project gestation times – to the limit. Its co-founder, writer/director Mariano Llinás, won global attention with Extraordinary Stories (2008), a four-hour labyrinth of splintered stories and mysteries within mysteries that played like an impish cinematic homage to his compatriot Jorge Luis Borges; he followed it up with La Flor (2018), ten years in the making, clocking in at over 13 hours and comprising a cornucopia of genres, from romance to B-horror to musicals.
Now we have Trenque Lauquen – another epic hymn to the unclassifiable, directed and co-written by Llinás’s fellow Pampero progenitor Laura Citarella. Though it’s similar to Llinás’s work in certain respects – it’s four hours long, it took six years to make, it’s interested in the tension between presenting a narrative problem and resolving it – its sensibilities are different. The mysteries are fewer and more focused; genre elements are present but muted; the whole thing breathes more slowly.
We begin in medias res: two middle-aged men, Rafael and Ezequiel, are scouring the Argentine backwater of Trenque Lauquen for Laura, who has gone missing. Rafael is Laura’s boyfriend; unbeknownst to him, Ezequiel is her lover. Each successive chapter – there are 12 in total – both clarifies and deepens the mystery: you think Laura, a botanist, was tracking down a new plant species; then you learn that what was really obsessing her was a steamy tryst that took place decades ago, discovered through letters hidden in books in the local library. As the first half draws to a close, hints emerge of a strange development: a taxonomically indistinct creature has been discovered in the local lake, setting the scene for a deliciously unexpected genre twist.
That such rabbit holes and rug-pulls never seem absurd or over-engineered is testament to the precision of the plotting – more surprising when you know that the complex non-chronological structure coalesced as the film was being shot. In spite of its painstaking assemblage, the whole thing feels so playful, and so porous. The line between diegetic and extra-diegetic music is repeatedly blurred; the sci-fi subplot feels oddly congruous with the realist aesthetic; and the main characters are all played by their namesakes: Ezequiel Pierri, Rafael Spregelburd, Laura Paredes (who co-wrote it).
The film is upfront about its puzzle-box nature: the first chapter, ‘La Aventura’, is a nod to Antonioni’s 1960 feature – also about the fruitless search for a missing woman. But there’s a paradox here: the delight of the plot’s mysteries is countervailed by the suggestion that solving mysteries is a fool’s errand. Anything too closely scrutinised is bound to disappoint or disappear: Laura’s attempts to see the creature only keep her from getting close to it, and she may be lost to Rafael and Ezequiel forever precisely because of their rational approach to ‘solving’ her. This is quite a contradiction for a mystery film, and it’s only thanks to Citarella’s command of pacing, and the balance she strikes between doling out information and withholding it, that the final act emerges as a reflexive critique of the urge to crack human conundrums rather than a cop-out.
Perhaps there’s a way out of the paradox: the recognition that investigations, even if doomed, are intoxicating in themselves. Gabriel Chwojnik’s score does much to bring home this headiness, at one point stealing the show entirely. Around the time the creature in the lagoon is mentioned, a solitary theremin begins to warble; but as Rafael gets into his car and begins to drive, this staple sound of B-movie sci-fi finds itself accompanied by a loping acoustic guitar rhythm – making the theremin sound for all the world like Alessandro Alessandroni’s whistling in Sergio Leone westerns. More than any visual in the film, it gets at how blithely, how mischievously, how masterfully Citarella toys with genre to redraw filmic boundaries and confound expectations.
► Trenque Lauquen is in UK cinemas from 8 December.