Argentinian director Lucrecia Martel’s “Pescados” (“Fish”) absurdly wonders what fish’s dreams are made of through a pool of carp who dream of driving in a car in the rain, but – and this seems the essential point – without dogs.
The frame of the film is crowded with bobbing carp of various sizes and colours that strain to reach for food at the top of an aquarium or a zen koi pond. Through their various tones of voice we detect differences in character between the fish as they blather in their invented language. Even without the sound, the anthropomorphized carp have personalities detectable in the way they treat other fish, nudging them out of the way, and swimming on top of them.
The strange and haunting sounds are a hallmark of Lucrecia Martel’s film style. The fish are granted the gift of semi-individuality through the sounds that they are associated with, depending on whether that sound is shriller or deeper. They speak in individual voices but with overlapping sounds. This is not the story of one fish, but a community. Schools of fish usually perform in perfect synchronicity but Martel’s carp react fitfully. As in her previous films (both feature-length and shorts), she is highlighting the individual’s comportment within a greater group.
The sounds, synchronized perfectly to the gaping fish mouths, are by Argentinean multidisciplinary artist Juana Molina. The noises are not from an easily recognizable instrument, but those who know Martel’s body of work will hear similarities to the device prominently featured in her second feature film, The Holy Girl. There is a sound like the theremin, an electronic instrument that is played without a touch. Molina is electro-folk musician who is also an actress and she cites Bjork as one of her influences. The connections between the two artists’ styles are unmistakable.
Martel is the well-known director of serious character studies like The Headless Woman and The Swamp, so her focus here on chatty sing-song fish might seem peculiar. Animal adventures are usually the stuff of Disney’s children’s films, rarely of prize-winning independent filmmakers and they feature elaborately drawn characters, not real live fish. In Finding Nemo (2003), the clown fish Nemo and his various friends tell us their story in their own words;Martel’s fish do so as well. Nemo’s tale is more canonical, a simple father and son tale, while Martel’s story resists making the same kind of sense. The anthropormorphic turn seems to flirt with a more complex ontological project. Her last short, Muda, also featured on Numero Cinq at the Movies, featured humans acting like insects. Both these films suggest Martel is exploring the boundaries of the human experience, possibly intending to denaturalize desire and identity through these animalistic turns.
Simplicity has been a crucial characteristic of Martel’s films since the beginning of her successful filmmaking career. In this short, in the dominant fish pond scenes, her camera zooms in and out on the fish in one continuous dance. The frame is always densely filled and this allows for shots of a single humanized fish or a more complete view of the pond, with multiple fish. The carp mesmerize with their ceaseless irregular movements. Splashing water, wavelets, and silver coins at the bottom of the pond catch the light, saturating the captured image again and again.
Martel bookends these vibrant pond scenes with POV shots of a passenger or driver in a car driving on a highway in the rain. In the first, the title shot, we see a greenish rainy dusk with a lot of sky. Martel builds dramatic tension in this section of the short, despite the absence of other characters, through the eerie colour and the car we see in the distance. This first sky scene is intermittently interrupted by what we assume to be the windshield wipers; they are at the same time nuisance and godsend, since they temporarily block our view but ultimately allow us to see through the windshield.
The water from the fishpond is contrasted with the rain on the windshield (reassuring for the fish, one would suppose). Water is a prominent feature in all of Martel’s feature films, but usually it is the characters that use the medium in some way. In this case, it is unconceivable that she would film fish without the liquid. In The Swamp, it was an oppressive element present in the air (heavy humidity) and in the family’s pool (where ultimately, the dramatic twist happens). In The Holy Girl, it was an element that allowed various morally ambiguous characters to wash away their possible sins.
From the dark threat of the highway in the rain, she moves us suddenly to the cacophony of the fish in the pond. Martel’s contrast of the effervescence of the fishpond and the dark starkness of the highway scene is unexpected, a difficult clash of images to process. At 1:39, she offers us another two-second flash of the road, as a convoy of transport trucks pass to the left of the screen in rapid succession. Now that we know the fish, know of their dream, we are left to wonder if this is the car the fish dream about and what will happen to this car full of fish driving down the highway? The short ends with a return to the highway footage, the bottom darkness of the koi pond transitioning into the view through the windshield as the fish fade and swim away to the exterior shot and the round shiny coins become the street lamps flashing by. Still, our questions remain unanswered. We’ll never know where the carp wanted to go on their road trip, what is so terrible about dogs, or why they would ever want to leave the gloriously manic pond.
This short film is rife with planes of observation, one of Martel’s favourite tropes. We view the film, the car driver looks out the windshield, the camera watches the fish, and all the fish look out of the bowl. Martel requires of her viewers that they gaze, stare, and look again and again. She perhaps does this best in her last feature film, The Headless Woman. In one continuous scene, we must watch the facial expressions of the main character as she goes through multiple emotions realizing, then discarding, the possibility that she may have hit a person with her car on the road. Watching a Martel film, we must discover and question the smallest of details or facial expressions.
In an perfect twist, given Martel’s preferred tropes, the filmmaker can be (barely) distinguished in a reflection in the koi pond, especially in the tight shots when there are few carp movements. We guess that she is there, a square black likeness, holding the camera, controlling what we see. But she and the film’s meaning remain elusive, a reflection, yet promissory.
This short was presented at the Jameson Notodofilmfest, an annual online festival born in 2001 from an idea by Javier Fesser, an Oscar-nominated filmmaker (2007). This festival allows young innovative filmmakers to present their work through the magical world of the interweb. The prestigious jury members contribute to widening the selection of shorts; Lucrecia Martel was a judge for the 8th edition of the festival.
— Sophie M. Lavoie
Sophie M. Lavoie conducts research in the areas of women’s writing and social change in Central America and the Caribbean. Her studies focus on women in contemporary Nicaragua during the first Sandinista era (1970-1990), but she is also interested in other revolutionary movements in the area, such as Cuba and El Salvador and in women’s writing in Latin America. Her current research project focuses on the link between women’s writing, empowerment, and revolutionary action during the Sandinista era in Nicaragua. She has published articles in Canadian Women’s Studies/les cahiers de la femme, Pandora, Centroamericana, Cahiers d’Etudes Romanes and Descant. She is Associate Professor at the University of New Brunswick in Fredericton, NB where she teaches Spanish and Latin American Cinema.