If La Cienaga abstracts Lucrecia Martel’s obsession with sound and space by exploring menacing, dynamic open areas, her second film The Holy Girl compartmentalizes and purifies these same aesthetics within a confined, suffocating locale – a bare-bones Argentinean hotel. Martel shows there’s no escaping the inevitable bursts of energy when bodies in motion collide, when a gaze turns into so much more than a connection, but a deception of intent. Religion and natural selection battle through every room, between young and old, as characters either settle for stasis or attempt to fill voids created by past failures.
Amalia (Maria Alche), the young teen at the heart of Martel’s guise, takes her fascination with an older doctor as a god-given evocation, albeit one initiated by an earlier moment of perversion. Her confusion, excitement, and disappointment create an unsettling conflict between weakness and morality, one that ties in brilliantly with Martel’s continuous use of the close-up. These shots display faces barely obscured, favoring ears, lips, hair, clear incarnations of sensory build-up, never allowing an easy recognition of place.
Martel’s style is both distancing and fascinating, connecting characters through meticulous framing while separating their ability to communicate with jarring uses of off-screen sound. It seems all of Martel’s films, especially The Holy Girl, demand multiple viewings to break down the director’s layered environments and ambiguous characters. But on first glance, it feels like a tragedy unfolding in the sparest of decisive moments, ones most directors ignore far too often.