Tuesday, June 14, 2011


Lucrecia Martel, 2008
Starring: Maria Onetto, Claudia Cantero, Cesar Bordon, Daniel Genoud, Guillermo Argeno, Ines Efron

La mujer sin cabeza aka The Headless Woman is a recent Argentinian film by emerging talent Lucrecia Martel (Holy Girl). It's an ethereal, haunting film that borrows from Hitchcockian suspense, film noir, and ghost stories, but doesn't fit into any particular genre. Vero (Onetto), an aging, statuesque blonde accidentally hits something with her car and comes to believe she has killed someone. Her husband and cousin, with whom she has an affair at the beginning of the film, assure her that nothing happened, but as she slips in a sort of trauma induced amnesia, they manipulate and change things to protect her and cover up a crime she may or may not have committed.

On the surface this is a simple narrative that encloses a wealth of visual detail, political allegory, and troubling questions about identity, independence, and personal responsibility. There are an amazing amount of visual clues and hints throughout the film. Probably my favorite example happens immediately after the car crash. The once clean driver's side window is now smeared with small hand-prints. It's incredibly creepy. Though many of the subtle visual details are clues about the story, they also provide a rich subtext about Vero, her identity, the role of femininity in Argentinian culture, and the role of family. While I think most directors would have gone with a more literal subplot, Martel masterfully ingrains most of her subtext in the visual world of the film. It's also the kind of film you will probably have to watch twice to pick up on everything.

The sound design is incredible. Martel creates a jarring, suspenseful film through sheer use of sound, ignoring a lot of the visual and textual tropes used in a more blatant suspense or thriller films. Vero initially gets into an accident because she is trying to answer her cell phone. Throughout the course of the film, a normally commonplace, mundane telephone ring becomes a source of palpable anxiety. The camera work is claustrophobic and somewhat reminiscent of Chantal Akerman's work from the early '70s, like the masterful Jeanne Dielman. Instead of the camera adjusting to the actors, the frame is set and the actors are forced to move in and out of it.

This is really the kind of film you have to watch in a certain mood, for instance on a dark and stormy night, preferably all alone. It is ghostly and captivating, but I could see how it would seem sluggish and confusing in the wrong environment. You have to pay close attention, because there is very little exposition. A lot of things are expressed visually and simply never stated by the characters.

The Headless Woman also works on different psychological levels. Martel says a lot about identity, femininity and family -- much of it negative. Vero doesn't seem to have any independence whatsoever. Everything is taken care of by the men in her life, her large, extended family decides what she will do on a daily basis and her nearly invisible household servants and office assistants do everything for her.

The film also has a strong undercurrent about the Dirty War. Extending from the mid-'70s to early '80s, the Dirty War refers to the bleak period of Argentinian history where state-sponsored violence against leftists and sympathizers was common place. People were kidnapped, babies were stolen and bodies were dropped from airplanes into the ocean. Thousands of people were murdered or disappeared. The shadow of this atrocity still hangs over the country and has been expressed numerous times in film and fiction in the subsequent years. One of the main issues in the film is personal responsibility. Vero may have killed a young boy, but goes along with the efforts of the men in her family to cover up this crime, giving in to self-imposed amnesia with relief. This willingness to forget recalls the long list of people -- final reports put the possible total at 30,000 -- who didn't make it out of the Dirty War and the reluctance of their friends, neighbors, and coworkers to uncover government-sponsored crimes.

The Headless Woman comes highly recommended. It's a powerful film from a very accomplished director. If you want to see some real technical prowess both in terms of sound and visuals this is a great place to go. It has also been newly released to single disc DVD and is currently streaming on Netflix.

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