Fittingly for a film tracking a botanist along her quest for an ultra-rare flower, Laura Citarella’s Trenque Lauquen unfurls like the network of a rose, each of its myriad tales unveiling and spilling into the next. Stretched across 250 minutes, split into twelve chapters, and divided into two parts, the film is a maze of forking paths, the cinematic equivalent of a short story by Jorge Luis Borges, who hovers above it as an essential touchstone. This is, after all, a Pampero Cine production, the Buenos Aires collective that spawned Mariano Llinás’s 2018 epic La Flor, another sprawling multi-genre pastiche that looked to the rhizomatic writings by Borges and other Río de la Plata scribes for inspiration.
Back in 1969, together with director Hugo Santiago and fellow writer Adolfo Bioy Casares, Borges co-wrote Invasión, a portrait of a fictional city, Aquileia, under an endless siege. Modeled on Buenos Aires, Aquileia feels at once alien and familiar, a place teeming with all kinds of strange apparitions. So does Trenque Lauquen, the rural town where much of Citarella’s diptych takes place. Like Borges with Aquileia, Citarella and co-writer-cum-actress Laura Paredes turn Trenque into a sort of wonderland, a town built upon layers of mysteries, secrets, and legends. It’s here that Laura (Paredes) was last seen, and the first of Trenque’s two parts trails after her boyfriend Rafael (Rafael Spregelburd) and colleague Ezequiel (Ezequiel Pierri) as they embark on what’s essentially a search-and-rescue mission. Rafael and Ezequiel each have their own theories as to why Laura vanished, and Citarella grants both ample time to unpack them. Indeed, Trenque Lauquen switches perspectives often, and many of its chapters are told from the point of view of different characters. Yet the film also complicates all efforts to stitch together Laura’s personality as a way of explaining her disappearance.
That’s the fundamental tension at the heart of Trenque Lauquen: a clash between two wildly different approaches to narrative. On the one hand, there’s Rafael and Ezequiel, hell-bent on turning the anecdotes and stories they pick up along the way into clues that will help them solve Laura’s absence; on the other, there’s Citarella and Paredes, who seem to do the opposite, enjoying the labyrinthine odyssey for its own sake, all while respecting Laura’s desire to not be found. What kicks off as a road trip turns into a detective caper, then a thriller, a romance, a sci-fi tale. Citarella and Paredes keep shifting the center of their maze with new and increasingly surreal detours. We follow Laura as she uncovers an intercontinental correspondence between two secret lovers, who hid their letters to each other inside books stored in Trenque’s local library; we hear of conspiracies involving botanists and magic flowers; and we trail behind a scientist (Elisa Carricajo) as she introduces Laura to a child who may or may not be human. Cartwheeling between plots, timelines, and characters, Trenque Lauquen shares with La Flor a similar narrative subversiveness. But contrary to Llinás’s deliberately incomplete stories, things do finish here, even as the transcendent and beatific final shot only reinforces the futility of Rafael and Ezequiel’s search. Laura is gone; as a girlfriend and colleague of hers tells us halfway through, there’s nothing we have to do about it.
Trenque Lauquen premiered in Venice and travels to the New York Film Festival this week. Back on the Lido, I sat with Citarella to discuss her approach to writing, the influence of Borges and Bioy Casares, and the role omissions play in the film.
NOTEBOOK: Trenque Lauquen is a maze of different storylines, detours, cul-de-sacs. I was curious to hear how and where the story began, and how you and co-scribe Laura Paredes worked on the script.
CITARELLA: Believe it or not, when we first started thinking about it, the film was going to be much more linear. We knew the plot would splinter, eventually, that it would follow all sorts of tangents, detours—that idea was always there. I wanted the film’s dramaturgy to peel away, so to speak, together with the characters. We wrote a very straightforward, A-to-B first draft, but there was something about this “peeling away” that really intrigued us. So, together with Laura, we reshuffled the whole structure. We’d already shot some scenes, and discussed a few ideas we were going to cling onto no matter what. We knew there’d be two men looking for an elusive woman, but that was originally meant to be a kind of short story we’d include at the very end of the script. Until we both thought, why don’t we start with someone else’s perspective on Laura’s escape? We realized it’d be important to flesh her out through someone else’s point of view.
This was a broader interest of mine, this idea of telling the same story through different perspectives. Each element means something different to different people. When Rafael finds the Alexandra Kollontai book Laura had dug up while uncovering the secret lovers’ correspondence, he reads it as an oblique commentary on his relationship with Laura; to Ezequiel, the book is a chronicle of his own secret romance with the missing woman; as to Laura, well, I don’t want to spoil much so let’s just say it’s only one of many other secrets she’ll uncover along the way… All that said, the real starting point here is Ostende (2011), my first feature. Trenque Lauquen is a chapter in the Ostende saga. I wanted to move the main character [also played by Laura Paredes] to another fictional universe, another locale. Plus I really wanted to find an excuse to film in Trenque.
NOTEBOOK: Your hometown.
CITARELLA: Yes. Well, my family’s. I was born in La Plata, but my whole family lived in Trenque, and that’s where I’d spend all my summers. I’ve always had a very idyllic, romantic relationship with the place. More so than with the cities I lived in as an adult. Because it’s a non-place. I wasn’t born there, so I don’t have that burden. But I’m close to the place in some profound ways. My Italian ancestors moved there at the beginning of the twentieth century. Legend has it they walked from Buenos Aires to Trenque. Five hundred kilometers. Some of them eventually returned to Europe, close to Turin, which is where we shot some of the scenes in Part One, when the action moves to Italy. I like to think of that background as a tree that kept on growing through the decades.
NOTEBOOK: I was thinking of the Mapuche origins of Trenque Lauquen’s name, “round lagoon,” and wondering if you think there’s a relationship between the place and the film’s circular narrative. I’m asking because whenever your characters drive past Trenque’s welcome sign it’s always as if they are entering another dimension.
CITARELLA: Oh, I like that! And yes, I think there’s a clear relationship between narrative structure and place. After all, the film only fully embraces Laura’s point of view when she leaves Trenque for good. And anytime someone enters the town past that welcome sign, you know that’s where things will happen. Conversely, the film seems to get lost and come undone right as we leave Trenque and venture into the Pampas. The whole town is under a spell, and to walk into it is to enter a fantasy world where all sorts of things can happen. Which I think is the same logic we followed in Ostende, this idea that someone, upon entering a new place, both changes it and is changed by it in return. That’s a similar starting point.
NOTEBOOK: Trenque Lauquen is full of omissions and ellipses; many of the things your characters look for are never shown, many others are left unexplained. What was your reasoning behind all these gaps?
CITARELLA: I like the special complicity omissions help you establish with viewers. But the film also needs to confirm its most surreal and fantastical elements from time to time. It needs to show you proof of their existence. Truth be told, there are so many omissions in Trenque Lauquen that sometimes I feel as though the film should show you things just to reassure you it’s not all a big lie. I mean, just take this magical creature/child/mutant we hear about in Part Two… Had we chosen not to show that bedroom-habitat where the creature supposedly lived, that strange greenhouse Laura walks into, late in the film, I think we would have left you with the feeling that the whole thing was just a joke. An illusion. We needed to show that this strange, surreal town has its real, tangible textures, a design. Otherwise the fantastical exists as something that’s only mentioned, remembered and, yes, omitted. Trenque Lauquen works by withholding information, but it can only afford to do that up to a certain point.
I also wanted the film to keep on moving and changing, always; I didn’t want it to settle for any particular genre. Or that the characters should behave the way you’d expect them to. You see this with Ezequiel. He spends the first part of Trenque Lauquen traveling with and studying Laura’s boyfriend, Rafael; Rafael acts as a detective, with Ezequiel as the taciturn witness, the one who’s holding secrets. It is only in Part Two that Ezequiel steps up and turns into an investigator himself. And I think it’s the omissions that help create enough room for these characters to grow and change. Same thing with the doctor played by Elisa Carricajo, whom the town first regards as a damaged woman, but Laura sees in a completely different light, a loving mother-to-be in a healthy relationship… It’s this constant dance between parceling out and withholding information that makes the characters so flexible, so permeable and receptive to the events around them.
NOTEBOOK: The film takes place in the present, but I was struck by your fascination with activities one would associate with a different, older era. You beckon us into public libraries; we listen to Laura as she talks on the radio, and watch her hang out at the local station, where much of Trenque takes place; and there’s a surprisingly touching sequence where you show how the local newspaper comes to life, step by step. It’s moments like these that turn the film into a symphony of anachronistic pleasures.
CITARELLA: That’s very interesting to hear. In all honesty, the newspaper scene you mentioned, we only shot [it] about a month ago! But it’s true: when we started shooting, all those years ago, Trenque Lauquen still had its radio station, its local daily… But the radio was destroyed after the pandemic. So to film all those scenes in Part Two where Ezequiel and Juliana sit and chat in the recording studio, we had to build the whole thing from scratch inside our own Pampero Cine headquarters. Same thing with the local daily. The publication went digital shortly after the pandemic, and we no longer had access to their physical printers. It all happened in the space of a few years. We began shooting in a town that still orbited around these vestiges of an analog world, a town that still defended them, if you like, and by the time we wrapped things up it was all gone. Or on the brink of disappearing. I like to think that Trenque Lauquen can double as a kind of documentary. An archive and time capsule of what the place was like.
NOTEBOOK: I liked how Part Two basically refutes every single theory Rafael and Ezequiel come up with to explain Laura’s disappearance.
CITARELLA: That’s true. Rafael and Ezequiel get many things wrong, but they’re still somewhat noble characters in the film. Even Rafael, who’s prone to all kinds of polemics and tantrums: you can understand why he’s so desperate, why he’s going crazy. He’s lost the love of his life. There’s this exchange I like, between Juliana and Ezequiel, when she says Rafael is a “Buenos Aires asshole,” and Ezequiel tells her she’s wrong, he’s actually a good guy. I think that’s fair. The other day someone told me they saw Trenque Lauquen as a film about women against men. Which it really, really isn’t!
NOTEBOOK: If anything, the one distinction you insist on is that men may tend to seek rational solutions to things that just can’t be explained. And Trenque Lauquen is full of them.
CITARELLA: Yes! Personally, I don’t like to think in terms of dichotomies between men and women, between a female and a male gaze. The other day my colleague Mariano [Llinás] said that Trenque Lauquen, to him, is a perfect illustration of the female mind… and Laura [Paredes] and I just jumped at him: there’s no such thing as a “female” mind! It’s not a distinct entity, its own thing, floating about. If you swapped Laura with a man you wouldn’t dream of calling Trenque Lauquen “a film about the male mind.” It’d be a film about a guy and the things that happen to him. Every character has their own cerebral makeup, of course, but I don’t see the point of pigeonholing that as male or female. That said, I agree with you. I do think there may be a tendency among men—certainly among the men you see in Trenque Lauquen—to interpret, put to words, explain, and articulate. While women—especially these women—seem to have a different, more intuitive approach to the world. A greater receptivity to and acceptance of things that may defy logic.
I’m still wrapping my head around the film myself, but when I heard Mariano talk about the female mind, I remembered a book I love, A Room of One’s Own, by Virginia Woolf. She wrote that she was only one link in a long chain of women that came before her. She was tracing a kind of genealogy, a family tree similar to what you see unfolding in Trenque Lauquen. If she can exist as a writer, if she can safely inhabit her place in the world, it’s because of all those who preceded her and made that life possible. So it is for the women in Trenque Lauquen. Things happen to them, and they experience them together, because they belong to the same network. I much prefer this idea of women weaving a web to that of a “female” mind existing as an impermeable thing. Laura herself says as much when she finds the Alexandra Kollontai book in Trenque’s library and realizes someone else highlighted the same sentences that speak to her. And the book itself is revealing; Kollontai writes in the first person singular but switches to the first person plural once she understands the things she’s writing about are the kind that happen to many others, too. This is the idea the film keeps going back to, this sense of community, of network.
NOTEBOOK: Can we talk more about the books that shaped Trenque Lauquen? There were many moments in the film that brought me back to the writings of Jorge Luis Borges, and I was curious to hear if he was one of your influences.
CITARELLA: I can’t claim I’m as big a Borges acolyte as other Pampero Cine people—certainly not as big as Mariano. But in terms of influences, the studio has always been associated with that literary tradition, its interest in the labyrinthine, multiple narratives, and so on. Now, in terms of Trenque Lauquen’s own ancestry, there’s a text by Bioy Casares that served as a key touchstone. El Perjurio de la Nieve, The Perjury of the Snow. I must have read it when I was still a student, back when public schools would include Casares in their syllabi… Anyway. It’s the story of a father who decides to lock himself up in his house with his young daughters, the idea being that if nothing ever changes, if their routines and days stay the same and no outsider barges in to disrupt the balance, they’ll cast a spell that will help them live forever. Except, of course, things fall apart fairly soon. And I liked this idea of breaking a spell. Which is essentially what happens when Laura and Elisa get closer, once Laura is shown Elisa’s hideout. It’s her arrival that changes things forever, and ultimately forces Elisa to flee. That’s the moment when the film really does open up to the fantastical, and to Casares’s own blend of it.
NOTEBOOK: We were talking about your (male) characters’ inability to put into words what they experience along the journey, and I think the songs you picked also speak to the same difficulties.
CITARELLA: They do. Take that song, “Los Caminos,” which you hear a number of times during the film. I think it captures just what Ezequiel is thinking throughout the trip. When the song goes “I guess I could say / the two of us were good friends,” or again, “Maybe you never understood / that my pace is slow and sad.” It’s a song he identifies with, that speaks for him.
NOTEBOOK: It’s a refuge, too.
CITARELLA: Totally. I guess you could say the same of the Violeta Parra song, “Me Voy, Me Voy.” But this song, “Los Caminos,” it hits differently. It talks about paths, detours, chances not taken—it speaks to and sponges up the melancholy the film radiates. At the same time, we really wanted the track list to give a certain 1980s FM radio vibe. That’s because the songs too had to help us nurture this idea of an ancient, analog world on the brink of extinction. I wanted music to add another texture to the film.
NOTEBOOK: How much did you shoot in total?
CITARELLA: Oh, I really wouldn’t be able to tell you. It was six years. There was the pandemic. I became pregnant, and so did Elisa [Carricajo], while Laura’s [Paredes] child was just eight months old when shooting began. You have a basic structure, and then you shoot scenes around it to fill gaps or tweak things. But so many things change over six years, and as a director you need to factor in that your actors will physically change, too. La Flor grappled with similar issues.
NOTEBOOK: And I think that’s part of that film’s magic. I remember leaving La Flor thinking I hadn’t just seen four actresses at work, but had watched them grow older, and had grown old with them, too. I think you achieve a very similar effect in Trenque Lauquen.
CITARELLA: I guess the cross-pollination is just natural, when you’re part of a collective like Pampero Cine. You work on your colleagues’ films, as I did with La Flor, and one way or another, those other projects end up influencing your own. My one obsession as we started to write Trenque Lauquen was to add another chapter to the Ostende saga. But then I made another film, Dog Lady (2015), which is a completely different story. And I worked on another project halfway through, a documentary I co-directed with Mercedes Halfon, Las Poetas Visitan a Juana Bignozzi (2019), a portrait of the poet who introduced me to the book by Kollontai which we ended up using here. I found the book in Bignozzi’s library, and took it with me. It’s all very rhizomatic: a labyrinth of connections that stretch across your whole body of work. And that was the key question for me: one, can you make new films that exist in conversation with those you’ve done before? How can you find new ways to use techniques and solutions you’ve employed in your previous works? And how will you film the same actress [Laura Paredes], now that so many years have passed since your first feature together?
I wanted to make a film that would kick off as a chapter in the Ostende saga and wind up as a film like Dog Lady, and a few people who’ve seen both have told me this is how Trenque Lauquen feels to them. But [each of them had] wildly different journeys, and I like how Trenque Lauquen changes as we go along. Some of those changes were decisions we made on the spot, like the choice to shoot the last part entirely on 35mm. We were filming a bar scene with one of our cinematographers, Inés Duacastella, and I kept telling her the frame was too wide. To which she replied, jokingly, just change the aspect ratio! And we did. I don’t know if you spotted it, but there’s a moment when the framing changes, and shrinks. It was rejuvenating. I kept telling Inés, “I think I’m starting a new movie!” And I hope that’s how it feels for the viewer, too: an entry into a brand-new world.