TRENQUE LAUQUEN Review: Sprawling, Adventurous, Wildly Imaginative
Laura Citarella directed; Laura Paredes, Rafael Spregelburd, Ezequiel Pierri, Juliana Muras, Elisa Carricajo and Verónica Llinás star.
Films that are intimidatingly long and have a title that is difficult to pronounce are a hard sell for audiences and even critics attending film festivals. Hopefully, that will not prove to be a deterrent in the discovery of Trenque Lauquen, Laura Citarella’s magnificent new mystery box film, a binge-worthy entertainment that is sure to delight those who give it their time and consideration.
Trenque Lauquen clocks in at four hours and 20 minutes. and is divided into two halves (Parts I & II) that are either shown on two separate days or on the same day, separated by an intermission. The film is based on and derives its name from the city of Trenque Lauquen, 400 km southwest of the capital, Buenos Aires. It translates to Round Lake in English. Citarella, part of the celebrated Argentine film collective El Pampero Cine, is an exciting voice in South American cinema and achieved breakout exposure through La Flor (2018), which she produced.
The film begins with two men searching for a woman named Laura (Laura Paredes) who has mysteriously disappeared from Trenque Lauquen. Rafael (Rafael Spregelburd), her boyfriend from Buenos Aires has come down to look for her and helping him is Ezequiel (Ezequiel Pierri), a local man who used to drive her around for her work and had become her friend.
Their main lead is recovering Ezequiel’s abandoned car that Laura had taken away before her disappearance. Their respective attitudes towards her are evident by the fact that Rafael thinks she stole the car, while Ezequiel says she borrowed it. When Ezequiel discovers a note in the car, addressed to him and written by Laura, it functions as the movie’s version of Proust’s madeleine and triggers Ezequiel’s memory, shown to us as a flashback that occupies most of Part I. It turns out that Ezequiel was madly, deeply in love with Laura and the two had arrived at a beautiful, unspoken understanding.
This is also where the movie’s vertiginous games of chronology come to the fore, reminiscent of Béla Tarr’s Sátántangó (1994) and Raúl Ruiz’s Mysteries of Lisbon (2010). Like the former, it is broken into 12 chapters (1-7 in Part I, 8-12 in Part II) and lurches forwards and backwards in time replicating multiple characters’ points of view; and like the latter, it has several levels of narrative nesting often employing flashbacks within flashbacks for a Russian nesting doll effect.
If you think the top-billed Laura Paredes might get lost in all these sleights of hand, fear not, as, after the 1st chapter with Rafael and Ezequiel, she is the primary character for the remainder of the film and ably carries it with her energetic performance. We get to know her intimately, learning that she was a biologist from Buenos Aires, spending a few months in Trenque Lauquen for a project classifying rare flowers found in the city.
She didn’t have a car and hence used Ezequiel’s services to drive her around to nearby fields to pick up flower samples. As a hobby, she also appeared on a local radio show run by Juliana (Juliana Muras) as a guest speaker, expounding on path-breaking women throughout history. Her recounting of the famous story about Lady Godiva (immortalized in the painting by John Collier) and the original Peeping Tom is transfixing.
The extraordinary skill with which Trenque Lauquen is constructed is demonstrated by the fact that it isn’t arbitrarily split into halves; the division is deliberate and there is a tonal and narrative, as well as thematic, distinction between the two parts. Besides the consistent presence of Laura and Ezequiel, each part features a different set of primary characters too. Part I has a greater presence of male figures with Rafael and especially Ezequiel sharing equal footing with Laura, while Part II is more female-driven, with Laura and other female characters taking charge.
Most importantly, each part spins its own mystery strand, over and above the central mystery of what happened to Laura. Part I features a plot that could be straight out of a Nicholas Sparks novel. Laura, while researching Russian revolutionary Alexandra Kollontai for her next radio hit, discovers a hidden love letter in her library copy of Kollontai’s book, The Autobiography of a Sexually Emancipated Communist Woman.
The letter, written by an Italian man (married and with kids) living in Italy, was sent to his mistress, an Argentine woman living in the 1960s in Trenque Lauquen. Laura soon discovers an entire trail of these letters, hidden inside hundreds upon hundreds of books in the library and spanning an entire decade. The letters are incredibly horny and contain explicit, graphic descriptions of all the ways in which Paolo wants to have sex with Carmen.
She soon pulls Ezequiel into the mystery and they together set out to solve the enigma of who these two lovers were and what transpired between them. It is here that Ezequiel (married and with kids himself) begins identifying with Paolo and falling hard for Laura. Funnily, while Laura finds the letters pornographic, Ezequiel thinks they are merely sensual. The sense of yearning mustered up between Ezequiel and Laura is quite powerful and forms the emotional core of the film.
Part II then pulls the rug from under the viewer’s feet by introducing an outlandish, unrelated plot about an escaped monster found in the local lake that has been stolen by two local women (Elisa Carricajo and Verónica Llinás) and hidden inside their house. The central mystery of Part II constitutes the true nature of this monster and Laura's attempts to uncover it.
These three mysteries provide the primary narrative interest in the film, imbuing it with gathering momentum, and make Trenque Lauquen compulsively watchable. It isn’t unlike the mystery box prestige offerings dime-a-dozen on American television of late.
Watching Trenque Lauquen is akin to binging a specially brilliant series. There is no doubt that Hollywood would make this story for television (and might still do it by purchasing remake rights). What then is the dividing line between TV and cinema? That seems to be the age-old question.
The answer almost always has to do with directorial prowess. TV is the writer’s medium while cinema is the director’s. Not production value or budget but great direction is what makes cinema, cinema. And on that criterion, Trenque Lauquen ably passes muster.
Citarella’s work is assured and superb, driving forward her elaborate, complex tale with confidence and coherence. The extended wordless finale, when the film suddenly switches its aspect ratio from full screen to widescreen for a purely visual coda, is a stunning highlight.
Elevating the film are terrific performances across the board, though Laura Paredes and Ezequiel Pierri deserve to be singled out for their contributions. Paredes employs movie star magnetism to anchor the film through its many tonal changes. Pierri, a big, bearded bear of a man, gives a performance of immense soulfulness despite his stoic exterior, the rare portrayal of a man head-over-heels in love that strikes the balance between masculinity and sensitivity.
Tech aspects are likewise excellent for this independent production. The specificity of the locale helps make Trenque Lauquen immersive. El Pampero Cine is well-known for the smarts with which they are able to mount their ambitious projects despite modest budgets. Without the resources to create and show a full-scale monster like Guillermo del Toro’s The Shape of Water (2017), Citarella instead relies on suggestion and innuendo to bring her monster story to life.
Adding immense value is Gabriel Chwojnik’s excellent, jangly score. He uses the visual motif of a water tower that resembles a UFO (also featured on the film’s official poster) as a cue to introduce spooky X-Files-like colors into his music. This music complements the film well, especially when things take a turn for bizarre with the escaped creature. His music contains hints about the creature's origins that even the script doesn’t.
El Pampero Cine’s hustle also requires everyone in the production to pull double duty, in front of and behind the camera, to save costs and bring added agility to the project, much like in a start-up. Laura Paredes not only stars but co-wrote the script alongside Citarella. The male lead Ezequiel Pierri handled producing duties. Meanwhile, director Laura Citarella swung around the camera too to appear on screen as the aforementioned Carmen.
As Trenque Lauquen makes its way through the festival circuit, accumulating acclaim will hopefully help bring attention and distribution to this sprawling, adventurous work of imagination. Citarella has noted that this film is a spiritual sequel to her earlier Ostende (2011), also starring Laura Paredes as Laura. Citarella would decry reading any explicit political agenda into her film but she’s definitely out there reclaiming attributes and concerns typically afforded to men: curiosity and mystique.
It is the women in her films that have agency -- they play amateur detectives searching for answers and they investigate other women -- interesting and mysterious, and with an inner life of their own. We all deal with the bafflement served up by life on a regular basis, trying to make sense of even ordinary things that would confound you if you were to take a moment. In Citarella’s vision, it is the women who ponder the great mysteries and endeavor to seek an absolution that may or may not be found.
Originally published during the New York Film Festival in October 2022. The film opens Friday, April 21, via The Cinema Guild, in New York City's Film at Lincoln Center.
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