Mourning Sickness

Lucrecia Martel, The Headless Woman, 2008, still from a color film in 35 mm, 87 minutes. Verónica (María Onetto).

CINEMA AS POST-TRAUMATIC STRESS DISORDER, Lucrecia Martel’s astounding The Headless Woman willfully disorients the viewer while forcefully indicting its subject. Great films have the power to unspool as dreams or nightmares; only the most exceptional, like Martel’s third feature, can make a spectator feel as if she is in a slightly concussed state.

The Headless Woman—shot, like Martel’s previous works, La Ciénaga (2001) and The Holy Girl (2004), in Salta, a city in northwestern Argentina (the director’s hometown)—begins with three boys and a dog playing, darting across a nearly abandoned highway to a canal. Their laughing and yelling transition, confusingly at first, to the sounds of other children, this group far more privileged, being shuttled back from some kind of family outing by various relatives. Among the adults is tall, bottle-blond, middle-aged Vero (a superb María Onetto). Alone in her Mercedes, listening to “Soley Soley,” a 1971 pop nugget, on the radio, she takes her eyes off the road to answer her cell phone, hitting something: a dog, or maybe one of the kids first seen playing by the road. Vero stops, tries to regain her composure, but drives off, never once looking back.

The sound and motion of the impact jolt us almost as much as Vero, who will spend the rest of the film nearly mute, confused (reporting to work at her dental practice, she takes a seat in the waiting room), terrified of sudden sounds, barely present at various family gatherings. (As in Martel’s first two films, the middle-class extended clan of The Headless Woman is vaguely incestuous: Vero is having an affair with her brother-in-law—or is he her cousin?—and her teenage niece seems to want to seduce her.) Midway through the film, she will dispassionately say to her husband, “I killed someone on the road.” The confession is not a precursor to accountability, triggering instead further concealment. Martel’s visual compositions (using 2.35 Scope for the first time), suggesting a state of consciousness alternately dulled and hyper-alert, and hallucinatory sound design reflect Vero’s psychic and moral collapse: a personal and political failing too readily abetted by those closest to her.

The Headless Woman opens August 19 at Film Forum in New York. For more details, click here.