PRINT Summer 2009


Lucrecia Martel’s The Headless Woman

ONE OF THE GREAT FILMS of the decade, Lucrecia Martel’s The Headless Woman induces a mesmeric state akin to that of its dazed eponym, tempting the audience to drift, like her, through the narrative’s proliferating mysteries. Trance film, ghost story, and political allegory, the impossibly dense and allusive Headless inlays every image with enigma so that its simple tale of a woman seized by the belief that she has committed a crime takes on an air of epistemological riddle. The film shares with Antonioni a modernist concern with the tenuousness of perception, its central conundrum reminiscent of Blow-Up’s, its traumatized heroine, like Monica Vitti in Red Desert, anxiously wandering a once-familiar world whose features have become unfixed.

How came she to lose her head? As in Martel’s previous two features—La ciénaga (The Swamp, 2001) and La niña santa (The Holy Girl, 2004), which, with The Headless Woman, form the so-called Salta trilogy, named after the northwestern province of Argentina where the director grew up and where these films are set—the characters are hapless, accident-prone, sometimes fatally so. Mecha (Graciela Borges), the alcoholic matriarch of La ciénaga, falls on a broken wineglass at the outset and spends the rest of the film dabbing cream on her lacerated cleavage. Her family incurs all manner of injury until another descent delivers the film’s symmetrical ending: Curiosity kills a child who tumbles from a ladder. In The Holy Girl, a naked neighbor crashes onto an apartment balcony from floors above, an errant Icarus stunned at the miracle of his own survival. The inciting accident of The Headless Woman appears banal—Verónica (María Onetto), a middle-aged dentist, hits a dog with her car—but eventually creates a slow-spreading trauma. Whether from fugue, amnesia, injury, or cumulative guilt—Martel typically avoids explanation—Verónica becomes somnambulant, wafting through her family and professional life with an expression of glazed enervation. Responding in non sequiturs, seeming not to remember or recognize the coordinates of her former life, Vero, as everyone calls her, fastens on an alternative account of her accident: that it was a hit-and-run, in which she killed a boy.

Like Apichatpong Weerasethakul and Terrence Malick, Martel somehow manages to inhabit both ends of the continuum that extends between cinema’s Controllers and its Intuitionists, those who lock every line, image, and role into a system of predetermined meaning (Egoyan, Haneke, Reygadas, et al.) and those who profit from chance and indeterminacy (Godard, Jarmusch, Varda). Her seemingly contradictory mix of precision and instinct can translate as a frustrating conflation of the elliptical and the explicit (sometimes turning divulgence into portentousness). Martel here establishes an absolute clarity of action, the camera battening on Verónica as she drives, the camera immobile, dispassionately recording the collision and its aftermath, as Vero finally gets out of the car and wanders the roadside in shock, in two long takes, punctuated only by a rear-window shot that reveals a dead dog on the highway—a shot that has been described as subjective, as being from Vero’s point of view, but probably isn’t. (The film’s central mystery rests on the ontological status of that one image.) Martel then proceeds to countermine our, and Verónica’s, comprehension of the accident with steadily accumulated ambiguity, calculated enigma. Who drives Vero to the hospital in that perplexing interstitial shot? (Fond of slurred imagery, Martel often films her characters through, or looking out of, rain-spattered glass.) Why does Vero wear a bandage on her forehead when it didn’t make contact during the accident? Why does room service at her hotel deliver a sandwich that she has already refused, and a chambermaid turn up to vacuum soon after Vero registers? The director adds to the sense of dislocation with a couple of “false” sound bridges, voices from a contiguous shot beginning in the previous one. (Martel’s closely worked audio—what she calls “sonic atmosphere”—occasionally employs misleading cues, an aural equivalent of the images in which her characters stare intently at something offscreen, which is subsequently revealed or not.) The film attenuates duration and temporal markers—the music and men’s hairstyles are strictly ’70s—its sense of elapsed time drifting into dreamy incoherence. Even the antecedents of pronouns become unanchored: It’s not initially clear if the “she” being sent for a medical examination is Vero or a female prisoner. Martel suppresses establishing shots, leaves us scrambling to ascertain the relations between characters, and introduces tangential narratives that eddy suggestively around Vero before coming to naught.

As Vero becomes convinced that she has hit and killed a child, a campesino, thus explaining the film’s hitherto mysterious prologue—a sequence in which three unidentified boys are playing in a roadside culvert—The Headless Woman not only transits the settings and themes of Martel’s previous features (hospital, hotel, swimming pool; family life, the unease of the rural bourgeoisie, nature’s entropy, fears of maiming and contagion) but likewise subsumes many genres. Vero peruses newspapers for coverage of her “crime,” as in a film noir. Her clan closes in around her, working to convince her that, as Marcos (César Bordón), her husband, exclaims as they search the night- time highway for evidence, “Es un perro! Es un perro!”—it’s only a dog—and, more insidiously, to expunge any trace of her accident. The ease with which her family erases the past, covering up her infraction, hints of conspiracy thriller, Martel’s compositions capturing Vero in unquiet close-up as her men engineer the concealment in bleary background. Headless records the power of the privileged to control information, to craft the “master narrative,” and the film’s unnerving aura of expunction recalls—as does the gardener’s unearthing of evidence of a previous existence in Vero’s garden—Argentina’s still suppurating recent past, in which the country’s elites had tens of thousands “disappeared” and let silence efface their crimes.

Martel says the film was inspired by a dream in which she found in her purse the hand of a black woman she had murdered. To the question “And you never cry for the people you killed?” she replied, “Well, I hardly know them.” Similarly Vero, who remains a cipher throughout, despite the intense scrutiny of Martel’s shallow focus close-ups. Proximity does not grant penetration. Aside from an ambiguous onset of weeping in a public washroom, introduced by a startling shower of welding sparks, Vero shows little concern for the missing boy, instead expressing exasperation at the shop owner who cannot supply the pots she wants because he is short an employee—that very boy. Ever attuned to class relations, Martel relays the insularity of her protagonist’s existence, its oblivious privilege. At film’s end, when the doors close on Vero as she reenters her tribe, her hair dyed back to its natural brunette, signaling a return to self, she moves easily through her bourgeois world, settling into its sanctum of indifference. Vero’s guilt, such as it was, has dissipated, like the child’s spectral handprint left on her car window, like the missing records of her X-rays and hotel stay. (Martel’s use of the Pop Tops’ “Mammy Blue” on the sound track at this juncture has the shivery effect of a cold coin pressed to the nape of the neck.)

The source of the film’s pervasive malaise seems at times sexual (there is considerable family disquiet over effeminate men and “dykey” young Candita [Inés Efron], who hangs around with girls who ride motorcycles all day “like guys” and comes on to Vero, her aunt), at times ecological (the flood; rusty tap water; filthy, aggressive turtles that threaten invasion), and at times medical (a hepatitis epidemic has swept the area). But family provides the locus of greatest anxiety. The gothically disturbed household of La ciénaga—set in a crumbling mansion aptly named after a narcotic and presided over by bitter, imperious Mecha, who, part Miss Havisham, part Norma Desmond, cries out for ice and red wine while denouncing the Indian maids and threatening to take to her bed—is replaced here by a world of shuttered twilight and incipient madness. “Why does everyone in our family go crazy?” Vero’s cousin wonders. “All of the ones who’ve died have been insane.” Addled old Aunt Lala (María Vaner), a gorgon in oversize glasses and troweled-on lipstick, espies a ghost in a wedding video and warns Vero that the house is full of phantoms. In her benumbed vacancy, Vero does appear to be a specter gazing upon her previous life.

“Close them, close them,” the first words uttered after the film’s prologue, is one of Martel’s many admonitions about looking, about eyes, sight, and cecity. “I didn’t see anything,” says Momi (Sofía Bertolotto) in the final line of La ciénaga; and the song that opens The Holy Girl directs us to “look, look at the extreme vileness.” Martel’s distinctive visual style often makes it difficult to decipher the image, to locate objects in space or to readily discern setting and characters. Working for the first time in wide-screen in Headless, Martel amplifies her signature spatial dislocations and strange truncations, her sudden shifts in perspective, and her employment of extreme shallow focus, to vertiginous effect. The initial image of Vero’s world is emblematic—a canted, spectrally veiled composition—and she herself first appears as a red-sweatered smear in deep, unfocused background. Martel isolates orbs and squares of activity within the ’Scope frame, sometimes resorting to trompe l’oeil effects to further disorient and forestall easy reading. When Marcos first appears, home from the hunt, he heads toward Vero from the kitchen, seemingly in a straight line, but instead emerges from a bewildering convergence of reflections. She flees into the bathroom—one of many in the film—and the camera fills the widescreen frame with a gorgeously textured, almost abstract composition: in extreme left frame, a round mirror with beveled wood border in which Vero’s chest and neck appear; a patch of sky-blue tile extending toward the doorjamb in right frame, nestled next a slice of stippled glass through which Marcos appears as a blur. Unlike acheiropoieta, icons not produced by human hands—of which the veil of Veronica, perhaps invoked by the Catholic-raised Martel in her heroine’s name, counts as a famous example—the director’s images are extremely made. “The world, the reality we live in . . . is invisible,” said Antonioni, “hence we have to be satisfied with what we see”; and in The Headless Woman, its central mystery both unresolved and somewhat irrelevant, we are amply satisfied. Like Martel’s unerring way with actors, her choice of visages counts among the most transfixing in contemporary cinema—think of the holy girl’s saintly face, big, awry eyes out of Parmigianino, mouth gone slack with malice or carnality—her images among its most fathomlessly beautiful.

The Headless Woman opens at Film Forum in New York on August 19.

James Quandt is senior programmer at Cinematheque Ontario in Toronto.