Friday, August 30, 2013

FI: The Headless Woman

The Headless Woman/La mujer sin cabeza
Argentina, 2008
Written and directed by Lucrecia Martel

Deliberately obscure and oblique, Lucrecia Martel's The Headless Woman is the sort of movie that could, depending on one's mood and mindset, provoke anything from indifference to rapture. This is partly because, for the majority of its running time, the film has a void at its center. You see, early on, Verónica (María Onetto) hits something with her car, banging her head in the process. For some reason, she doesn't stop right away. By the time she does, she is no longer sure whether she's hit something or someone, a dog or a person. It's an ambiguity we think we can clarify, but one the film will only settle for us in tangent.

Whether because of the physical or psychological trauma of the accident, Verónica spends a good amount of the film in an affectless daze, barely able to function or even remember who people are and how they relate to her. Martel frequently films her from behind, at a 3/4 turn, her blonde hair obscuring parts of the frame. Because this ties us so closely to Verónica's perspective, much about the picture remains fuzzy and opaque. Events happen to her, people take her places or suggest things that she goes along with, and there rarely seems to be a story reason behind any of it. Almost no-one seems too concerned that she's having some sort of breakdown, and even fewer take her seriously as she becomes increasingly convinced she killed someone on the road that day. As Verónica, Onetto is magnetically enigmatic, her face vacant but warm, like someone bluffing their way through an awkward encounter with a person they know they should recognize, but don't.

Martel creates an uneasy tension through unbalanced compositions and an editing style that embraces discontinuity and abrupt jumps in time, signifying Verónica's damaged mental state. The closest filmic point of reference would be Antonioni's L'Avventura, but while his focus was on alienation, Martel is interested in class disparity. The film has much to say about the gap between the upper-class dentist Verónica and her affluent family, and Argentina's "invisible" majority of lower class workers who they barely even notice. But none of this is said outright, it all just creeps in at the margins and haunts the background, should you look for it. In that way, The Headless Woman is a fascinating film, but one that requires your careful attention. You may not be willing to give it should the film's atmosphere not grasp you from the start—I myself never finished it the first time I tried, some years ago, though I always meant to return to it. Now that I have, I don't regret it.

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