All Quiet on Set: The Haptic Gaze of La Niña Santa 

Doctor Jano cirujano 

hoy tenemos que operar, 

en la sala de emergencias 

a una chica de su edad. 

Ella tiene 21 años 

usted tiene un año más, 

No la toque ni la mire 

no se vaya a enamorar. 

Translation: (Doctor. Jano, surgeon/ Today we have to operate/ In the emergency room/ On a girl of your age/She is twenty-one years old/ And you are a year older/don’t touch or look at her/don’t fall in love) 

               –   Latin American Hand-Clapping Song 

I remember struggling to keep pace with the hand movements accompanying the Doctor Jano hand-clapping song I played during many lower-school recesses. My friends and I would take turns, moving our hands deftly, smacking our hips, snapping our fingers. And repeat. The talented kept their composure as tempo increased. The less dexterous joined the choir as others dueled, palms smacking, faster and faster. I hadn’t thought about the song’s meaning until I heard it in Lucrecia Martel’s debut feature film La Cienega (2001); the song felt uncanny as I watched young girls deliver the lyrics into a ceaselessly nodding fan. The unease I felt stemmed less from the rotating blades chopping the sound of their voices and more from the song’s implications. And Lucrecia Martel’s second feature film La Niña Santa (2004) validated the sexual misconduct I felt lurking in the song’s silences as it’s a Doctor Jano who sexually molests Amalia, the adolescent holy girl.  

Amalia (María Alche) lives with her mother, Helena (Mercedes Morán), and her uncle Freddy (Alejandro Urdapilleta) in their tired-looking hotel with one redeeming feature: a swimming pool. An otolaryngologist convention occurs amidst their unhomely domestic space, and Doctor Jano (Carlos Belloso) is one of the ear-throat-nose doctors who stays at the hotel, their home. Amalia, Helena, and Freddy share a room where their interactions are redolent of a centipede cluster as their limbs intertwine while they sleep together. The blurring of normative familial relations is a constant in Martel’s films. La Niña Santa breaks away from the familial idiosyncrasies of La Cienega through with Doctor Jano and the desire he incites in Helena and Amalia.  

The attraction between Helena and Doctor Jano is archetypical—bearing the insignia of adultery as he’s a married man with children and she a frustrated divorcee. While his groping of Amalia (not knowing who she is) on two accounts takes a Martelian turn as Amalia interprets his lewd actions as a divine sign from God. Amalia’s pious convictions erode Catholic constructs of femininity (as purity) and childhood (as innocence) as she makes Doctor Jano the object of her desire. Amalia refuses to “accept her status as object in the economy of gaze and touch initiated by Jano, and her dogged insistence on actively looking/desiring is especially threatening to the social order.” The transformation of femininity from an object of desire—subject to the male gaze—to becoming a source of agency is most apparent during the scenes when Doctor Jano sexually molests Amalia.  

The diegetic sound coming from the theremin, an instrument played without being touched, is not incidental as Doctor Jano moves through the crowd, stopping snugly behind Amalia. Martel shifts our attention to the boundary of visual perception, placing the characters at the periphery of the frame before cutting to crotch level, where we become complicit in watching Doctor Jano press his groin into Amalia. The shot lingers. As he presses himself into her, the crinkling of his pants adds discomforting tacticity, giving the image a haptic quality. The next shot returns us to Amalia’s face. Curiosity quickly eclipses her confusion. Amalia holds still. As she turns her head tentatively, Doctor Jano scurries away, eliding her gaze. Turning her head to confront her perpetrator with her gaze is a transgressive act, queering constructs of femininity and innocence that portray women and children as passive characters, objects of desire beholden to the male gaze. At that moment, Doctor Jano elicits desire in Amalia, becoming the object of her divine vocation and eroticized object of her gaze.   

This scene repeats itself later, after Amalia watches Doctor Jano without being seen, her gaze becoming scopophilic: “taking other people as objects, subjecting them to a controlling and curious gaze.” But Martel resists the voyeuristic gaze that relies on the vantage point of seeing to distance itself from the spectacle of its observation by creating a haptic gaze entangled in its setting. Amalia’s penchant for touching and smelling and whispering challenges the idea of perception as something purely visual. Martel prioritizes touch through close-up shots where hands interact with surfaces: hands comb through hair, fingers stroke the pool’s water, nails tap tables.Vails, curtains, and screens proliferate in shots, layering space, endowing the image with dimensionality. The texture of sheets and clothing and floors come to life through sound. Beugnet states, “sound plays an essential role in the construction of a haptic space. […P]recise and hyperdetailed or inchoate, the audio closeup pulls the viewer in and envelops him or her with a sensuous or uncanny sense of intimacy.” The convergence of these aesthetic choices results in tactility, engendering a haptic image, indistinguishable from Amalia’s gaze.  

The second time Doctor Jano molests Amalia, the agency of her haptic gaze confronts him. Doctor Jano is watching the theremin spectacle when Amalia spots him. She walks over and stands in front of him. Again, the shot cuts to crotch level. And again, the viewer watches Doctor Jano thrust his groin into her jeans. His hand leaves his pocket, hesitantly moving toward her butt. Sensing his hand, Amalia reaches her fingers back, touching his hand. Her touch, an acknowledgment of his touch, antecedes her gaze, an acknowledgment of him, as she turns her head, momentarily locking eyes with him before he frantically leaves. Amalia’s gaze is first tactile and then visual. Martel’s representation of the gaze as haptic, embodied in the senses, undermines patriarchal depictions of the gaze as visual.  

La Niña Santa is a meditation on one of the first utterances in the film, “I don’t think anyone could confuse something ugly with something beautiful, something joyful with something horrifying, could they?” The belief system that lends itself to categorizing the world in binaries is a restrictive one. Martel counters restrictive perception and morality by creating characters that are a stage upon which social contradictions are played out (Stam 2000, 146). Desire is a generative force in her characters that creates perceptual fluidity; Amalia’s desire re-imagines social constructs of femininity and adolescence and the relationship these constructs have with agency. By creating haptic images capable of eliciting visceral responses in the viewer, Martel conceives a filmmaking style in dialogue with the somatic. Echoing Amalia’s gaze, which touches before it sees, Martel creates a cinematic experience that touches the viewer, vitiating seeing as the apogee of perception.  

 Works Cited: 

Marks, Laura U. The Skin of the Film Intercultural Cinema, Embodiment, and the Senses. Durham [U.A.] Duke Univ. Press [Ca, 2007. 

Martin, Deborah. Cinema of Lucrecia Martel. Manchester University Press, 2030. 

“The ‘Pleasure of Looking’ and the Male Gaze as Explored in Alfred Hitchcock’s Rear Window (1954) and Vertigo (1958).” Obscur, 19 Apr. 2020,