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The Headless Woman (La mujer sin cabeza)

Director: Lucrecia Martel
Cast: María Onetto, Guillermo Arengo, Cesar Bordon, Claudia Cantero, Ines Efron

(Strand Releasing; US theatrical: 19 Aug 2009 (Limited release); 2008)

At the Edges

“Your hair looks gorgeous.” Elegant, confident, and bottle-blond, Veró (María Onetto) smiles at the compliment. Yes, she knows the color is “very flattering,” tilting her head as if to flaunt such truth. And then, with somewhere else to be, she takes her leave of the women chattering about children and swimming pools, alone in her car, serene and… distracted by her cell phone for just an instant.


You might almost expect the result of Veró‘s lapsed attention: as she leans across the seat, her car hits something. Less predictably, throughout this minute or so of life-changing event, the camera in The Headless Woman (La mujer sin cabeza) never moves. Fixed on Veró‘s profile from the passenger’s seat, it observes her barely shifting expressions, from surprise to wonder to displeasure, and at last, distress, as the car clangs and rattles. When she does stop and gasps, exiting the car and passing in and out of frame, you’re left looking at her steering wheel. Rain begins, drops loud and splatty on the windshield.


Screening at New York’s Film Forum as of 19 August, Lucretia Martel’s third feature is a story of breakdowns. Focused through Veró‘s story, her loss of memory and focus, the movie is part dark comedy, part social analysis, and part brilliant abstraction. As Veró ponders her damaged car and the something it’s hit (she comes to believe it’s a person, but it may be a dog, suggested by a split-second image in her rearview mirror), the film begins to look away—at doorways and through windows, at figures without faces and torsos relegated to blurry backgrounds, at long shots of the clinic where Veró gets a bandage for her head and of the northwest Argentine outback where she lives.


While alluding to the details that Veró misses each day, The Headless Woman also offers pieces of her experience: voices of off-screen maids and cab drivers, short takes of “the boy who cleans the car” and slightly longer views of her husband Marco (César Bordón), returned from hunting and startled to find her showering with her clothes on. It’s not entirely clear which of these moments Veró, a children’s dentist, comprehends: just after the accident, she’s advised that she’s forgotten her keys and “other things,” as the camera remains steady on her face, whether foggy or unruffled. Surrounded by family members who seem to care for her, she overhears them discussing Tía Lala (María Vaner), who’s recently lost her grasp of the present, even as she’s also lost hold of the past, misidentifying individuals in Veró‘s wedding video. “You were gorgeous,” notes Lala, “Why did you let yourself go?” As Veró and Josefina (Claudia Cantero) roll their eyes, she beings . “She’s unbearable now,” Josefina complains. “Why does everyone in our family go crazy?” 


Josefina has married into the family, her husband being Marco’s cousin, Juan Manuel (Daniel Genoud). Immediately following the accident, it appears that Veró indulges in an unplanned tryst with Juanma, their encounter in a hotel room rendered in close-up fragments, less passionate than frantic. Then again, her efforts to track down the room later lead to frustration: “It was unoccupied,” insists the hotel clerk, suggesting Veró imagined it. Juanma and Marcos worry together over Veró‘s sudden confession that “I killed someone on the road.” When Marcos drives her to the site at night, she stays inside the car, unable to see as he tells her, “There’s nothing by the roadside. It’s nothing. You got scared, you ran over a dog, you got scared.”


Veró‘s inability to see here is of a piece with her inability to understand and interpret. As you’re dropped into her experience without context, the film leaves open whether she’s always or long been so disoriented, or whether the accident is a triggering trauma. It is also unclear how Veró‘s condition—whatever it is—speaks to broader cultural concerns, the repression of national memory that is both specific to Argentina and also disturbingly universal, the ways that societies manage their collective identities and politics by conveniently leaving out whole chunks of the past and present. Punctuated by repeated “headless ” figures, whether their faces are blurred by distance or shallow focus, or left out of close frames.


The film works in multiple ways, limiting your vision to Veró‘s while also questioning what she thinks she sees, what she describes, how she looks or when she turns away. When Josefina dismisses Lala’s lack of comprehension as a function of age and failing health (“It doesn’t matter if she’s awake; if she’s breathing, it’s okay”), she’s alluding as well to a more general inattention and loss of focus, within individual and shared lives. This loss is at once emotional, ethical, and physical—embodied by Lala and Veró‘s niece Candita (Inés Efron), wifty and listless, hanging at the edges of scenes. Recuperating from an illness, repeatedly instructed to stay in bed or away from others, to avoid infection, Candita announces she is “bored to death,” but also interested in seeing the site where a murdered boy has been found (“The paper says he drowned,” offers Veró, without context). Candita remains both unexplained and a reflection of Veró.


Neither woman seems wholly conscious of the other’s meaning to her, yet they appear again and again in the same space, divided by doorframes but still, related. Headless or blank-faced, vaguely conscious or convulsively curious, the women wander in their own lives, imagining they’ve made contact.

Rating:

Cynthia Fuchs is director of Film & Media Studies and Associate Professor of English, Film & Video Studies, African and African American Studies, Sport & American Culture, and Women and Gender Studies at George Mason University.


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By Lucas Hilderbrand
31 Dec 1994
Within the first moments of her debut feature, 'La Ciénaga', writer/director Lucrecia Martel demonstrates a piercing sensibility and a sharp eye.
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