Cruel Summer September 2, 2020
On La Collectionneuse, Long Weekend, and La Ciénaga
he anticipation of a holiday is almost always more pleasurable than its reality. At the beginning of the amusing La Collectionneuse (1967), its
dispassionate art-curator protagonist, Adrien (Patrick Bauchau), heads to a villa on the French Riviera, itself being rented by a wealthy buddy. He intends to spend a leisurely summer there to clear his head — just before the trip, he and his fiancée decided to spend the next few months apart, with her heading to London a little while for work. Adrien has been led to believe ahead of his arrival that the only other person at the dwelling will be an old mutual friend named Daniel (Daniel Pommereulle). Not so. The villa, airy and tasteful, is also inhabited by a gamine young woman from the area named Haydée (Haydée Politoff).
At least when appropriating the thought processes of Daniel and Adrien, who luxuriate in their own self-importance, it's quickly
Haydée Politoff in 1967's La Collectionneuse.
established that Haydée is an air-headed girl who uses and loses men like cans of discarded Pepsi-Cola. Director Éric Rohmer also establishes her as a sex object in one of the film’s three prologues, each of which introduces us to the movie’s lead characters. She’s slowly walking along a beach’s shores in a softly tie-dyed bikini; the camera ogles her tanned body in an assortment of close-ups. (Later we understand that this extended moment of ostensible exploitation is pointed rather than emptily leering — more on that later.) Daniel and Adrien obnoxiously refer to Haydée as a "collector” — it’s her the title of the movie is referring to, the so-called collector of men.
Although the name’s meant to have a negative connotation, both men would not-so-secretly like to be sitting on one of Haydée’s symbolic shelves. Their summer will thusly be spent not merely relaxing and getting a nice tan, as Adrien had planned for, but also (and more intensely) dallying in stupid mind games. Despite being openly cruel to Haydée about her sexual confidence, Daniel and Adrien informally compete, nonstop, for her affections. Who will be the man this summer to take the biggest piece of Haydée’s heart? (Who ever said any of it was up for sale?)
That Adrien is the protagonist of the movie and that we don’t know very much about Haydée might seem, on the face of it, Rohmer tacitly siding with his main character — getting caught up in and mythologizing the summer Adrien will look back on years from now as the summer where he got wrapped up in a temptress's teases. But in the course of its lithe 87 minutes, La Collectionneuse quietly announces a subversiveness; its external and internal approaches are not in sync. The more we spend time in Adrien’s head (his faux-philosophical musings basically soundtrack the film in voiceover), the more pathetic he seems. He is forever trying to make his life seem more lyrical, turn himself into the hero of his own story. To Haydée, more and more bemused by these men trying to project so much onto her (she is simply wanting to have a fun summer, and what is so wrong with having a succession of one-night stands and relishing in the day-to-day?), Adrien is more an annoyance than he understands.
He puts so much in her but she puts so little in him — a funny irony Rohmer delights in. In Adrien’s mind, Haydée is purposely instructable. She lives almost solely to toy with him; she doesn’t think about anything besides how she will antagonize him and Daniel. Rohmer pulls off a difficult something. Using his same tactic — having the film unfold from the point of view of a myopic and egoistic protagonist — and a lesser director might unwittingly make the movie seem a verification of Adrien’s hang-ups. But the more time we see the world through Adrien’s eyes the more delusional he seems and the more multidimensional Haydée becomes. She obviously cannot fit in this femme-fatale costume Adrien and Daniel have hastily sewed for her.
Neither man wants to acknowledge that the torment they reason is all her fault stems more from her marked unwillingness to live up to their fantasies than a conscious, cruel-minded effort to exasperate. It’s more comfortable for them both to attribute their malaise to this pretty young woman with the big lips and the languid manner than to acknowledge that they are not in any way special or great, and that their being well-read and-dressed doesn’t mean that they are somehow superior to an untroubled young woman who indulges in pleasure-seeking and doesn’t care quite as much about one’s unaccredited intellectual verve. Who was it that decided, anyway, that any of these attributes were to somehow indicate the purity — “goodness" — of one’s character, and could be faciley ranked?
Of course, future versions of Daniel and Adrien will recall Haydée in the same manner as a film-noir seductress when talking about her to buddies someday. La Collectionneuse is a sort of corrective, testament of truth and misapprehension. We know both how Haydée exists in these men's heads and how she truly moved about life. It’s a feature-length burlesquing of the bad habits of an unreliable narrator. At the end of the movie, when Adrien has lost most of his fixation on Haydée, he calls up his fiancée, looking to work things out. We know he would probably tell us if we asked that he was inspired to reunite with her because he learned, after a few months away from his beloved, how to better appreciate something “real.” But Rohmer underscores the subtext — that he can’t take this feeling that maybe he is not the world’s nucleus much longer.
ould this fix everything? Peter and Marcia (John Hargreaves and Briony Behets) are a married couple so far past the seven-year-itch phase that the itch has become a rash. This weekend they're planning to
depart on a getaway — their first real vacation together in a long time. They aren’t on good terms these days; we later find out that the sources of their marital unhappiness are far direr than mere bad communication, a natural loss of love for the other person. Perhaps being away from home for a few days — letting nature release her healing powers — will do them some good. Maybe once Peter and Marcia return home all the things that had bothered them before they left will seem trivial.
In Long Weekend (1978), a well-made but drab Australian thriller, that won’t be the case, even though, early into the vacation (camping at an unmarked spot next to a secluded beach), some warmth briefly reenters their relationship. In a superficially fun twist for the vacation-from-hell movie, the continued disintegration of Peter and Marcia’s marriage will be sped up — to a terminal degree — by karma. In tandem with their many quarrels, screenwriter Everett De Roche makes a point to show the couple disrespecting the wilderness into which they have barged: showering ants with insecticide willy nilly; tromping through native-plant beds; dropping used cigarettes as if they were no different than fertilizer; unnecessarily chopping down little trees for firewood. The harshest act comes in the middle of the film when Marcia slams an egg she finds into a tree in a fit of rage. When the camera zooms in on the aftermath, it looks like the bark is bleeding.
Yes, this is a divorce drama. But in a goofy-but-seriously-portrayed development, Long Weekend is also a revenge movie. Almost confirming that Mother Nature is sentient and residing somewhere hidden, like an ivy-draped castle in the sky, the natural world she controls decides, after enough abuses from Marcia and Peter, that it has collectively had enough. In horror movies of Long Weekend’s ilk, this getaway-style vacation might be more commonly
interrupted by a mad slasher who sets their sights on the main character(s), or a radioactive monster that pops up seemingly out of nowhere. But in this movie, the ocean, the trees, the opossums, the birds, the insects, are the ones murderously targeting Peter and Marcia.
An interesting conceit for a movie, to be sure. But a provocative idea can’t gloss over the dullness of spending most of Long Weekend waiting — in my case impatiently after a while — for something to happen. Here a part of the ensemble, we half-expect nature to act with the same breathless, surreal violence as that animated tree in 1981's The Evil Dead. That doesn’t exactly happen; nature's wrath is more implied than bluntly portrayed. Our waiting is made further unpleasant by the unavoidable reality that there is little reason to care about Peter and Marcia, who are awful to each other and the world in which they live. They don’t seem to have any redeeming qualities — they repel sympathy. It isn’t a requirement, necessarily, for people like them to be simplistically likable in a movie like Long Weekend; in fact it’s probably better if they aren’t, if retaliation from the natural world is to be what drives the movie. But I think that for this to work the conclusive reveal that nature will mistreat you back should be explosive — engender a big and exciting finale that doubles down on our suspicions.
In Long Weekend, there isn’t much of a flashy confirmation. And so the film, whose success really does hinge on the promise of its unusual premise and the portrayal of it, becomes mostly a feature-length vacation with people we don’t like who eventually die mysteriously. It succeeds as a quasi-message movie — no viewer will watch Long Weekend and not be newly extra conscious of their carbon footprint. But an effectively delivered message cannot negate a lack of excitement aggravated by shallow and circular misery.
n La Ciénaga (2001), Lucrecia Martel’s impeccably dreary and claustrophobic family drama, there arrives no moment where we finally don’t feel trapped and like someone who has vanished without a trace has the key
to free us. In the film, which was the then-35-year-old Martel’s directorial debut, we are stuck in the mire of familial dysfunction. Most of the movie is set at an Argentinian estate out in the country, complete with a pool and plenty of woods to wander around in. It’s summertime, but we glean little joy from the stereotypically joyful season. The skies are perennially overcast; the pool has gotten so dirty that a plunge into it would likely trigger a painful infection of any exposed orifice, really. The encircling woods are so lipped in mud that, to drive in their inaccessibility, one of the first shots we see in the movie is of a wild animal struggling in its muck, trapped and likely to die.
A big, bourgeois family resides at the summer estate; the opening of the film sees a herd of just the adults noisily shuttling beach chairs around the pool in what looks almost like a group performance. It's headed by matriarch Mecha (Graciela Borges), who is curt and vain. As the film opens, she trips, drops her wine glass, and falls directly on the shards. Bleeding onto the pool tile, Mecha implores relatives bringing the car into the backyard to take her to the hospital to try not to crush her hydrangeas. This is supposed to be the movie’s inciting “incident,” though the film doesn’t expectedly go anywhere especially exciting afterward. It lolls around. “Decay,” “rot,” are the words that first come to mind when describing the film’s look, aura; some critics have taken this as a reflection of then-current cultural relations in Argentina.
Mecha’s fall inspires her cousin, Tali (Mercedes Morán), and her also-big but less affluent family to come to the grounds for moral support. Both families are comparably miserable in each other’s company (an uneasy rapport not helped by Mecha’s ill treatment of the hired help), though it is suggested that the prospect of doing something other than wallowing in it is too scary to indulge. Family tradition and a refusal to dally too much in old grudges are safer to adhere to. There comes no large catharsis in La Ciénaga, as is usually the case for family dramas as thick and heavy with dysfunction. We’re left unmoored in the nightmarish, roundabout family dynamic, always unclear of these dynamics, never welcomed. In keeping with its title, which translates to “The Swamp,” stagnance defines La Ciénaga. There being no easy escape from its frighteningly well-constructed dolor makes it unforgettable, if hard to watch.
La Collectionneuse: A
Long Weekend: C-
La Ciénaga: B+