The Headless Woman

English Title: The Headless Woman

Original Title: La mujer sin cabeza

Country of Origin: Argentina

Studio: Aqua Films,El Deseo, Slot Machine, Teodora Film, R&C Productions, Strand Releasing

Director: Lucrecia Martel

Producer(s): Pedro Almodóvar, Agustín Almodóvar, Lucrecia Martel, Enrique Piñeyro

Screenplay: Lucrecia Martel

Cinematographer: Bárbara Álvarez

Art Director: María Eugenia Sueiro

Editor: Miguel Schverdfinger

Runtime: 87 minutes

Genre: Experimental Film

Starring/Cast: Claudia Cantero, Inés Efron, Daniel Genoud , María Onetto

Year: 2008

Other Information:

Composer: Sebastián Escofet

 

 

Format: Colour, 35 mm


Synopsis:

Vero, a dentist with newly-dyed blond hair, is driving home. Distracted by her mobile phone, she runs over something. She stops her car but does not get out to investigate. Was it a dog? A child? Experiencing dizziness and memory loss, Vero seeks treatment for her head trauma. While going about her days in a trance-like state, she starts to wonder whether she did indeed kill someone. Her husband tries to convince her otherwise, but Vero’s anxieties cannot be mollified and she begins telling people that she ran over a person. This hazy sense of unfounded guilt slowly begins to dissipate. As the truth eventually emerges, it looks likely that she will simply return to her bourgeois life.


Critique:

Martel’s three feature films concern the lives of the privileged and cloistered: a wealthy family engaged in little but drunken lounging in La Ciénaga/The Swamp (2001); two teenage girls bumming around a dilapidated hotel in La niña santa/The Holy Girl (2004); and the distracted protagonist of The Headless Woman. The bourgeois existence is shown as one of oblivion, an attempt to ignore the members of the lower class, even as they wander about and impact the protagonists’ lives. Salta, the setting of the films and the northwestern town in which Martel was born, is a far cry from the glitz of Buenos Aires. However, it is, like most places in the world, a region where a chasmic class divide persists, perpetuated in part because the moneyed are rarely, if ever, forced to so much as acknowledge the great unwashed.

 

After the first few minutes of The Headless Woman, members of the lower class appear only periodically, but their presence hangs over the film, trailing and haunting Vero. Viewers will never know for sure what she hit with her car, even after a late revelation that it was very likely a child. While she has almost certainly experienced head trauma, what is truly eating away at her is guilt, not only over her potential crime, but over the strong possibility that she could get away with murder. Her husband may be preoccupied and generally unconcerned, but he is also well-connected and could easily clear this matter up.

 

Vero’s guilt manifests itself in self-sabotage: in one of the few times she speaks clearly and assertively, she blurts out in public that she ran over someone, causing her husband to cover up her faux-pas. It becomes evident that she feels suffocated not only by her actions (or inactions) but also by her social status. She suddenly finds herself disinterested in everyone around her, from her family to her friends. Entire scenes go by with her neither saying a word nor acknowledging the presence of her ‘loved ones’. Alas, this is only a phase, and soon Vero finds herself sucked back into her original orbit, the head trauma – and perhaps even her guilt – dissipated.

 

If this seems, to international audiences, like a simple missive on the evils of the rich, there is a deeper subtext for those familiar with recent Argentine history. The possibility of an impoverished child’s death recalls the disappearance of Argentine citizens under the military dictatorship. Vero and her friends are of light European persuasion – her recently-dyed blonde hair a glaring symbol – summoning up the distant colonial past as well.

 

Martel does her best to dull the obviousness of her commentary with a filmmaking style that adopts Vero’s hazy condition. She gets inside Vero’s head, even as the film’s protagonist remains intentionally vague as to her inner life. The filmmaking adopts as its style Vero’s hazy condition. Both The Swamp and The Holy Girl made claustrophobic use of the 1.85:1 aspect ratio, with characters crowded into frames, faces obscured by body parts or simply cut off by the edges. Where the feeling of watching The Holy Girl is like being trapped in a tiny, packed lift, The Headless Woman is eerily open, even as it applies the same principles to the Cinemascope frame. In the rectangular image shape, the cinematographer makes extensive use of negative space, with large chunks of the frame unoccupied, while Vero is regularly placed off-centre or partially off-screen. The lighting is often an F-stop or two too dark, so even when the characters are clearly placed in the frame it is difficult to see them.

 

The enigmatic title can sometimes be interpreted literally, in that Vero’s head is sometimes cut off at the top of the frame. Likewise, it suggests someone who has, at least temporarily, lost her mind. She has trouble connecting with her family at a time when she becomes suddenly aware of the lower class she has customarily ignored. When lower-class characters appear, they are, like all other supporting characters, almost never clearly visible: they are obscured by objects, parts of buildings and people, or filmed out-of-focus – as though Martel’s experimental approach were putting obstacles in our visual path, the better to replicate her protagonist’s blinkered viewpoint. For Vero, the wealthy are suddenly hard to see while the lower class is finally at least hazily, albeit only briefly, visible.

Author of this review: Matt Prigge