The Headless Woman
Mystery envelops ‘Headless Woman’
The condition of headlessness in Lucrecia Martel’s “The Headless Woman’’ is figurative. But all the movie’s ambiguity depends on it.
Vero (Maria Onetto) isn’t feeling herself lately. She’s listless and taciturn. Her husband (César Bordón), cousin (Claudia Cantero), and housekeeping staff don’t appear to be terribly bothered that she’s been replaced by this peculiar facsimile. A male cousin (Daniel Genoud) appears to find it sexy. What brought this on? The car accident she has in the film’s extraordinary opening minutes? Or her almost-as-spectacular new haircut? The question of the haircut isn’t a flippant crack but a key to the film’s enveloping obliqueness. Vero has dyed her hair a striking straw color. It’s got such glamorous volume that the curls seem suspended around her head.
Driving home, alone, to her home in the Argentine province of Salta, Vero reaches for a ringing cellphone. As she feels for it, the camera, positioned in the passenger’s seat, rattles while the car jolts. Vero pulls to a stop and tries to collect herself, replacing her sunglasses then resuming her drive, never so much as glancing in the rearview mirror for a look at what or whom she hit. After Vero pulls off, Martel cuts to an exterior shot that clarifies as much as she can bear to. With the car in the foreground, something is visible lying in the dusty road. Depending on the size of your screen (the one at the Museum of Fine Arts is more than adequate), it’s quite obvious what she hit.
This deftly executed sequence creates a fascinating haze around its heroine that never completely dissipates. Another film might have had us get to know this woman before inviting us to see her in a post-traumatic light. Martel boldly denies any establishing information. Vero appears to be a mystery to herself. She drives to a hospital, dozes off in the waiting room, then wanders into a bathroom, where she seemingly attempts to position her head to stay within the camera’s framing. We overhear a staff member recognize Vero as the sister of one of the doctors. What else we learn about her is caught in snatches. She’s a dentist, for instance, and the man who makes love to her not long after the accident is her cousin. But Martel doesn’t want to imply disorientation. She wants to embody it. And so the movie becomes as much about our dislocation as it is about her protagonist’s. Suddenly, the blond haircut, her fair skin, and all that ambiguity make sense.
If Vero is no longer Vero, she’s Kim Novak in “Vertigo,’’ a chic figment of the cinematic cosmos. But where Alfred Hitchcock’s movie was about fantastical pursuit, “The Headless Woman’’ is about fantastical retreat. If Martel is thinking about the moral straits of Hitchcock’s heroines (or, for that matter, the existential straits of Michelangelo Antonioni’s), she’s also brought these ideas to bear on both Argentine political history and the country’s class structure. Vero is as torpid as the seemingly invisible dark-skinned men and women who perform assorted chores around her home (her mood is just colored with a mounting sense of guilt). Her willingness to forget loosely evokes the selective nature of the government’s institutional memory.
Martel’s previous films, “La Cienaga’’ (2001) and “The Holy Girl’’ (2004), were also the work of a formalist who didn’t see any point in explication. Both films were eccentric (“The Holy Girl’’ ended just as it look primed to explode) and narratively stingy. They were also warm with feeling and intricate psychology. She treats the movies with radiant literariness, practicing the sort of withholding that makes you want to know her randy, curious, complicated characters.
“The Headless Woman’’ is the first of her films to keep an emotional distance and operate at intellectual remove. However idiosyncratic they were, you miss the humidity and sexual heat of the other films. But after three movies she appears to have mastered atmospheric mystery. If Hitchcock and Antonioni ever had an interest in class guilt, you’d have Martel. Few nervous breakdowns are as stoically philosophical as Vero’s. She remains locked outside of herself. (We see the back of her head as often as we do the front.) For the women in her family, headlessness also includes ecstatic lesbian crushes and geriatric dementia.
This is also the first of Martel’s films to build in a direction other than up. The film’s lateral movement continues a kind of class commentary. Indeed, after Vero’s accident, which occurred while she was driving from the left side of the screen to the right, Martel often shows her facing or being driven the other way, which is to say: backward. Fortunately, this superb director remains headed in the opposite direction.
Wesley Morris can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.