By J. Hoberman
An elliptical narrative from Latin America's other cinematic powerhouse, Argentine filmmaker Lucretia Martel's third feature, The Headless Woman, opens next Wednesday for a two-week run at Film Forum.
Like I'm Gonna Explode, The Headless Woman was shown in last year's New York Film Festival, concerns a local haute bourgeoisie, is also set in the filmmaker's native region, and has a violent undercurrent. The perspective, however, is entirely different. Where I'm Gonna Explode is blithely free-associative, The Headless Woman is a dark comedy of disassociation—a movie in which the filmmaker uses her considerable skills to render a protagonist opaque even as the audience is compelled to share her mental state. (Martel's affinities are not to Godard and the new wave but to Antonioni and the metaphysical Michael Haneke of Caché.)
Distracted by her cell phone, Veró (María Onetto)—a well-off woman of a certain age—causes an automobile accident. It may be that she has run over a dog, although the two ghostly palm prints left on her driver's side window suggest something else. The subject of the movie is not the mystery of what happened, but rather how, or if, that mystery is resolved.
Veró initially ponders the situation without investigating. It has only taken a few seconds for her world to come unhinged. As if to reinforce the point, a storm blows into the northwest Argentine outback that, in her earlier films La ciénaga (2001) and The Holy Girl (2004), Martel established as her own Yoknapatawpha County. Martel has been called a novelistic filmmaker—in her disinclination to spell out a narrative, she's a lot closer to Henry James than Charles Dickens. The story proceeds in casually hectic fits and starts; the plot is a patchwork of overheard dialogue and surprise cuts. How did Veró arrive at the clinic? Although not obviously injured, she breezes through a waiting room crammed with impassive Indians. Is she in shock or willed into a childlike state? Had she scheduled a tryst with a lover who may be married to her sister or cousin—or is it just one of those things? Dazed and forgetful, our protagonist wanders through her defamiliarized routines, engaging in all manners of impulsive behavior, dealing with servants and campesinos, always with a gracious smile and quizzical air. (Onetto's sustained brittle poise makes for an unsettling comic performance.)
As dense and fluid as Martel's movie is, the viewer—like the protagonist—is compelled to live in the moment. And a rich moment it is. With its shallow focus, chiaroscuro lighting, off-centered wide-screen compositions, and constant background noise, The Headless Woman teems with life. There's a jungle of family relations. Kids are always hanging around like ripe fruit although, like much else, Veró's precise connection to other characters has to be deduced. A key scene, with no apparent narrative function, has the elderly dragon known as Aunt Lala lying in bed disapprovingly fast-forwarding through a VHS tape and misidentifying the participants in a family wedding. At one point, she forgets that Veró has daughters—or maybe she confuses Veró with someone else (and Veró, still confused, seems to have forgotten as well).
The Headless Woman demands an attentive spectator. In some ways, it's actually even more enigmatic after one grasps the premise, although then, Martel's argument is easier to follow. Her movie is less a psychological case study than an exercise in social pathology. Midway through, Veró tells her husband that she thinks she might have killed someone back on the road, the evening of the storm. (That someone, it would seem, is a poor Indian child.) Is she trying to confess, to remember, to understand? Even as the woman who has lost her head continues to act "strangely"—and strange becomes the new normal, or vice versa—class relations and privilege come to the fore.
Martel's movie has a gothic-sounding title and, had she been in the new wave business of dropping cine-references, she might have borrowed it from a 1947 Argentine potboiler Una mujer sin cabeza. (Instead, she says, it came to her in a dream.) The earlier tale of a "headless woman" is an old dark house comedy made to parody genre conventions. Martel's movie is more concerned with deranging cinematic conventions, but it, too, is set in a haunted house—a sardonic exposure of what a character in Godard's Weekend calls "the horror of the bourgeoisie."