Thursday, February 11, 2010

The Headless Woman (La mujer sin cabeza) A Film by Lucrecia Martel (2007)


The recent batch of audacious Argentinian films have come from some decidedly opaque filmmakers, but among them, Lucrecia Martel is the most willfully teasing in terms of narrative expectations. Her third feature, The Headless Woman, is a monument to diffuse plotlessness after making us believe after its chilling setup that it will be at least a low-key thriller. Instead, it is a cinema of reactions, of effect rather than cause. Documenting the quasi-amnesiac state of a middle-aged woman in the days following an accident on the road where she collides with a force (the identity(s) of which becomes the latent mystery of the film), it purposely excises the kind of empirical evidence that might lead the viewer to an understanding of what exactly happened. Martel prefers creating an ominous tapestry of portentous diegetic sounds and nondescript visuals reflecting the world only as her anti-heroine sees it, thus leaving us without any accurate frame of reference. The result is a film that washes over the screen in an indistinct blur, making it difficult to engage with during or even directly following the viewing.

It is only now, a day later, that I am able to gain my bearings and recall some of the devices she sneaks into the modest frames, which appear at a surprisingly frequent rate and inspire a curiously numbing effect. These are not only cinematic devices, like offscreen noise, subtly tampered audio, and mildly oblique widescreen compositions, but also elusive narrative motifs, such as incest, bizarre family dynamics, and the intermittent presence of lower-class Argentinians. Martel emphasizes nothing, so it's easy to second guess oneself and wonder if what was seen was really processed or interpreted correctly. Further shrouding the content is the fact that our new experiences are also the main character Verónica's (María Onetto); the guilt, anxiety, and dissociation forged by her accident shifts her significantly out of complacency, to the point where she seems to be reintegrating herself into her own life. Her impending routines - family gatherings, massage sessions, and work as a dental hygienist - remain systematic, yet it is always as if Verónica is experiencing them passively for the first time, a confused voyeur to her own existence. When advanced sexually by her husband's cousin, she first reacts in a trance, then gives in, assuming it is something she has done comfortably for a while. Another crucial scene involves her sitting down with members of her family watching old video tapes and finding herself unable to detect whether the names her mother uses for identification with certain individuals in the video are indeed correct.

For a large portion of time, Verónica remains seemingly adrift from her sense of self, until an unexplainable epiphany leads her to surmise that it was a boy that she ran over with her car. This instantly jars with the audience's preconceived notions, because a relatively identifiable, albeit indefinite, image shown through the rear-view mirror of her car earlier in the film revealed the corpse of a dog. It can be recalled however that the film's dynamic opening frames captured a group of three dark-skinned children and their dog playing hide-and-go-seek along the dirt road through the deserted outskirts of town. When the collision occurs, Verónica blankly stays in the driver's seat of her car, refusing to identify the victim of the crash. In doing so, the film establishes an aversion to sight that is two-fold: firstly, that what is seen may not always be the whole truth, and secondly, that there is a consuming desire not to look, for to see is to face the validation of horror. Accordingly, The Headless Woman is a visually hazy film, heavy on off-center framings and shallow focus, revealing ghostly figures beyond the scope of Verónica's foggy vision.



The realization of the central character's own faults is also something of a vague regaining of her own conscience, for she begins to make decisions that come from a recognizable motivation. She openly admits her hunch to her husband and asks him to drive her out to the scene of the crash in the middle of the night, making it clear that she finally wants to extinguish her guilt through confirmation. However, when nothing to her suspicions is found on the road, she seems to recoil slightly back into her detached state and pursues knowledge of the accident less actively. Gradually, it appears that Verónica is less interested in knowing what happened as an act of justice as she is in simply being able to acknowledge the facts and move on with her life in psychological order. (Such a conceit resembles Antonioni's Blow-Up, in which the pursuit for objective truth was equally misleading. Coincidentally, María Onetto bears a physical and stylistic resemblance to Monica Vitti.) The film's pacing grows increasingly sluggish and fragmentary until after Verónica makes the classic Hitchockian identity transformation (dying her hair from lucid blond to pitch black), it comes to an unexpected halt, one that is far from indicated by the context of the final shot.

Although nearly the whole of The Headless Woman rests on the minor variations, or lack thereof, in actress María Onetto's expression, the film can hardly be categorized as a psychological drama. Rather, it's a purely phenomenological work which is more interested in making us experience before understanding or interpreting. It is also ostensibly a condemnation of a somnambulistic middle class, Verónica being the scathing microcosm, founded on the clear delineations the film makes between Argentinian social classes. Nearly all of the dark-skinned characters in the film function as servants to Verónica's family, and the boy that she presumably hits with her car is further proof of the inability of the middle class to recognize their prejudices. This theme lines Martel's film up with a structurally similar work that also deals with deeply unacknowledged biases: Michael Haneke's Caché. But whereas Haneke's film finds tantalizing ways to augment its enigmatic mystery, The Headless Woman deliberately lounges in a more stoic atmosphere, and for this, it's often a frustrating, alienating piece of Antoniennui introduced by a masterful pre-credit sequence that would suggest a more diversely moody film.

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