The Face in the Misty Light
By Sarah Fensom
Dir. Laura Citarella, Argentina, Cinema Guild
In Trenque Lauquen, mysteries fold into mysteries. Unfurling over two parts and twelve chapters, Laura Citarella’s four-and-a-half-hour film holds at its center the disappearance of Laura (Laura Paredes), a young biologist from Buenos Aires who is cataloging local plant life in the Trenque Lauquen suburb of the Argentine city. Amid an inquiry into her whereabouts, other unexpected investigations—and departures and arrivals—emerge and recede across the film’s expanse. Despite its length and its ambitious, formal scope, the film isn’t what might typically be referred to as an epic. It’s instead, something else: an intimate, novelistic puzzle that charts a region, a number of interconnected lives, and a series of past and present events like a hand-drawn map. The film meanders across genres—true crime, detective story, sci-fi, romance, and even supernatural horror—but, grounded by humor and naturalism, it all somehow feels a part of the same fertile landscape.
The film’s first chapter bears the title “La Aventura,” bringing to mind Antonioni’s 1960 masterpiece about the search for a lost young woman. In its opening scenes, Laura’s boyfriend, Rafael (Rafael Spregelburd), who has come from the city to look for her, and meets up with Ezequiel (Ezequiel Pierri), known mostly as Chicho, a local transportation director who frequently ferried Laura to and from the countryside to collect flower specimens from the region (one in particular, a long stem yellow flower, will prove to be of great importance later in the film). The two retrieve Chicho’s car, which Laura had mysteriously borrowed and then abandoned at a service station outside of town. They drive around the Las Pampas area looking for signs of her, trudging through awkward conversation and a very loose, aimless plan, which seems to satisfy Rafael’s bourgeois, get-things-done sensibility but pains Chicho. In the latter’s downcast eyes one can read the heavy weight of emotion and secrets kept. He ditches Rafael at a hotel as soon as opportunity allows.
Laura is the name of a certain kind of lost woman, whose absence fills each scene with her presence—Gene Tierney’s Laura Hunt in Otto Preminger’s Laura, Sheryl Lee’s Laura Palmer in Lynch’s Twin Peaks. Trenque Lauquen’s central mystery woman might seem to be that type of Laura at first. But as we meet her via extended flashbacks, she soon becomes a richly drawn, knowable character, filled with warmth and curiosity—not simply the amalgamation of others’ longings and explanations. And though the film begins with the men who are looking for Laura, they are not the protagonists, and she is not lost, but on a journey of her own through the film’s primary narrative. We see Laura at work, driving out to fields and rural estates with Chicho to collect specimens, and putting together segments on important women of history for a recurring guest spot at the local radio station. Nested within the mystery of her disappearance are various other mysteries, of which she is the prime investigator. She finds a series of erotic letters between two lovers from the early 1960s hidden in library books. Laura shares her discovery with Chicho, and together they investigate, tracing the letters to a forbidden affair between a wealthy Italian landowner and one of his sons’ teachers at the local school. This mystery is thrilling and engrossing, like new love, and they grow close. The intoxication of their connection and what they’ve discovered is a deft distraction—one almost forgets that in the present, they’ve lost one another.
In one of the last scenes of the film’s first half, Laura’s former boss drives Rafael through town to the bus station. He has just learned about Laura’s gig at the radio station as a recurring guest contributor on a local news morning show and the abrupt, somewhat messy way she left her hotel room. As he fights for composure amidst his bewilderment, Rafael’s eyes probe the overcast townscape while Laura’s boss points to various landmarks: here, the bar Laura frequented; there, the high-rise she stayed in when she first arrived in town; the lake; a tower that looks like a UFO. An eerie theremin melody overtakes the film’s score for the first time, reminiscent of 1950s sci-fi B-movies. Everything feels unsettling. Did we ever know Laura at all? Rafael boards a bus, never to return to Trenque Lauquen.
The film’s second part is bold and unexpected. Appetite whetted by Laura and Chicho’s discoveries in Part 1, one might assume Citarella will bring these mysteries further into focus. Instead, brilliantly defying expectations, an entirely new mystery of an entirely new sort arises. Part 2’s action unfolds primarily in flashback, framed by a long, confessional recording Laura left a colleague at the radio station. The colleague plays the recording for Chicho over the course of one late night. A nuanced dance of revelation and withholding forms between Chicho’s reactions to Laura’s audio and what we, the viewers, see of Laura’s story, emphasizing the unique powers of the filmic and radio mediums. Citarella’s use of audio brings the past into the present. In order to listen, Chicho sits in the same chair where Laura sat to record her story, drinks from the same bottle of whiskey. This device simultaneously allows us to feel both closeness and absence—highlighting the dual nature of recorded media. Earlier, in part 1, Chicho is shown inhabiting the role of the Italian from the romantic correspondence—the film’s only poetic insertion of the present into the past. Apart from this choice, however, Trenque Lauquen’s approach is mainly structural, laying timeline over timeline in a way that film makes uniquely possible. In one of the most powerful instances of this technique, Chicho listens to Laura say that she was falling in love with him in her recording. Past and present come together, as we watch Chicho listen to Laura’s confession. He smiles, but it’s pained, as if he’s watching a missed bus disappear into the distance.
In the recording, Laura explains that while looking for specimens in a field, she was approached by a strange woman, who asked her to find a particular type of flower with yellow buds and long stems. In order to make sense of it, Laura must jump back further in time, unpacking a sensational, if forgotten, local news story about the discovery of a humanoid creature in the town’s lake that could breathe underwater. We see how Laura’s colleagues at the radio station report on the story, with stunned uncertainty and later, dismissive laughter. The story falls from local consciousness, but Laura pursues it, realizing a doctor, who was reported as observing the creature at the town’s hospital, was the woman who approached her about the yellow flowers. She tails the doctor to the home she shares with another woman and observes an otherworldly occurrence there. Through an offering of the long-stemmed yellow flowers, Laura gains narrow entry into the couple’s world, and even briefly stays at their home. Giving them help, she hopes she will be rewarded with trust, but, in the end, the secret they’re harboring remains out of her—and the viewer’s—reach.
After the recording ends, Laura’s path continues, and the film doesn’t provide definitive conclusions, but instead, sets up mirrors with which we can retroactively reflect upon what we have been watching. We recognize in her the shadowy destiny of one of the mysterious figures in the affair she discovered with Chicho in Part 1. Just as these similarities become clear, both narratives feel deeper, more enigmatic.
Trenque Lauquen is a follow-up to Laura Citarella’s Ostende (2011), a film that accompanies the same Laura character (also played by Paredes) to a seaside hotel near Buenos Aires, where she eavesdrops on the stories of other guests. In this new film, as in Ostende, narratives can emerge from unconventional origins, with curiosity as a dramatic motivator. Exploring, collecting, and listening are the ways in which Laura navigates Citarella’s cinematic world, and this is what makes Trenque Lauquen such an attentive, rewarding experience. It’s through storytelling devices that privilege listening—the reading of letters out loud, the playing of recordings, the radio station, the motto of which is “you can see with your ears,” as a central hub of action—that Citarella creates a stage where time leaps and multiple, seemingly oblique mysteries don’t confuse but enlighten. Unlike the perspectival game of say, Rashomon, where true understanding is intentionally diffused among discrete subjectivities, in Trenque Lauquen, this epistemological hurdle is cleared through the act of sharing and being patient and open to context and digression (tellingly, Rafael, a character incapable of these things, has no place in the film’s second part). Ultimately, as we see parallel lives and experiences unfold in the film’s layered timelines, it becomes less important how things happened (although the film makes its events quite entertaining) and much more important why. The beauty of Trenque Lauquen is in how it embraces this narrative dissonance and how the lives of its characters come to haunt one another across time, perhaps eroding the possibility of knowing literal truth but increasing the possibility of a deeper interpersonal understanding.
The way the film balances its richly textured temporal scaffolding with a page-turner plot brings contemporary literary works like Ottessa Moshfegh’s Death in Her Hands (2020) to mind, while its complex structure of frames and digressions is reminiscent of the postmodern literary architecture of Borges. In cinema, Trenque Lauquen has its progenitors as well, in the labyrinthine films of Raúl Ruiz and the work of Manoel de Oliveira. The unique energy of Citarella’s film, though, seems to emanate from the way it was made, evoking the collaborative, long-form approach of Rivette. Citarella spent six years working on Trenque Lauquen, which she co-wrote with Paredes. Both women are associated with El Pampero, a filmmaking collective that includes Mariano Llinás, Agustín Mendilaharzu, and Alejo Moguillansky. Members of the group swap directing, acting, writing, editing, and producing duties on each other’s films, and together have created Ostende; Moguillansky’s Castro (2009); and Llinás’s La Flor (2018), a thirteen-hour film, which like Trenque Lauquen, flits hummingbird-like through genres and nested storylines. Enormously ambitious in their narrative scopes and structural intricacies, these films balance complicated dramatic structures and human intimacy in ways that feel expansive and rich with new possibilities. Trenque Lauquen boldly answers the questions and fulfills the promises its complex narrative poses, and still, to its credit, manages to feel at its end, like a beginning.