8.10.2011

Saint, whore, virgin, fool: Lucretia Martel's The Holy Girl



Maybe it’s that I’ve been spending the last three weeks immersed in David Foster Wallace’s massive novel Infinite Jest (which is every bit the tour de force it’s cracked up to be, and more), but of all the possible ways to understand Lucretia Martel’s baffling film The Holy Girl (2005)—as religious satire, feminist parable, coming of age story—I found it most enjoyable as a kind of absurdist farce.  Like Wallace’s novel, The Holy Girl is about odd coincidences, misinterpretations, narrow-minded obsessions.  Where Shakespeare’s characters had fatal flaws, Wallace’s (and Martel’s) have fatal quirks.  The film is largely set in an Argentine hotel run by Helena, a beautiful but bitter divorcee who spends much of the film avoiding phone calls from her ex-husband’s new wife, who wants to announce to her that she is pregnant with twins.  During a week-long medical conference being held at the hotel, Helena finds herself attracted to Dr. Jano, who convinces her to participate in a kind of doctor-and-patient role-playing exercise with which the conference will end.  Helena agrees (and becomes increasingly panicked about the “performance”), but she doesn’t know that the sexually frustrated Dr. Jano has meanwhile been rubbing himself up against her adolescent daughter Amalia every afternoon while standing in a heavy outdoor crowd watching a theremin player, and that Amalia—who has been taught in Catholic school to be aware of signs from God signaling her spiritual vocation—believes that these rubbings-up may constitute such a sign, and consequently that her spiritual destiny is to sleep with Dr. Jano, or absolve him of his sexual guilt, or something. 

It’s a difficult and oblique film, one that often shifts its focus and tone suddenly and disorientingly.  Martel tends to back off from characters or situations, leaving them heavy with ambiguity and a kind of ironic mystery; the ending of the film comes just at the moment before the plot’s many threads seem to converge rather than showing the convergence itself.  The thing that’s most exciting about The Holy Girl, though, is the sheer zaniness of its plot—sexual fumblings mistaken for religious miracles, the weird private lives of medical professionals (Dr. Jano is not the only one of his profession distracted by women during the conference), Catholic schoolgirls trying to puzzle out the logic of stories of religious martyrdom.  Some of Martel’s details are wonderfully bizarre, like a hotel cleaning lady who is constantly in the background, methodically spraying an aerosol can.  These touches call to mind a whole host of surrealist writers and filmmakers—Kafka, Beckett, Bunuel, Lynch.  There’s serious stuff going on in this film, but I appreciated Martel’s strange sense of humor more.               

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