By Stephen Holden
A full appreciation of Lucrecia Martel’s elegant, rain-soaked film, “The Headless Woman,” requires the concentration and eye for detail of a forensic detective. Every frame of this brilliant, maddeningly enigmatic puzzle of a movie contains crucial information, much of it glimpsed on the periphery and sometimes passing so quickly you barely have time to blink.
The film is set in the same region of northwestern Argentina, near Salta, as Ms. Martel’s first two films, “La Ciénaga” and “The Holy Girl.” Like its forerunners, “The Headless Woman” portrays an environment with signs of physical and social decay. The extended family clustering around its central character, Verónica (María Onetto), a statuesque middle-age bottle blonde who runs a dental clinic with her brother, is ingrown and incestuous.
In a moment of stress, Verónica has an impulsive fling with Juan Manuel (Daniel Genoud), an in-law who is also a cousin of her husband, Marcos (César Bordón). A lesbian niece, recovering from hepatitis, is unrequitedly besotted with her. The women gossip about the possible contamination of a private swimming pool by turtles. An ailing aunt observes that everyone in the family eventually goes crazy.
The story revolves around Verónica’s brief meltdown after her involvement in a possible hit-and-run accident. In the movie’s opening shot, four boys with a dog cavort in a roadside canal along a nearly deserted rural highway as an approaching car is heard.
Inside the car, Verónica’s cellphone rings. As she gropes for it, she hits something, and with two sharp jolts, her head jerks back, then forward onto the steering wheel. Stopping the car, she retrieves her sunglasses, which fell on the floor, and we observe mysterious handprints on the window next to the driver’s seat. Regaining her composure, Verónica continues on, and a rearview shot of the road reveals the carcass of a dog. Eventually, Verónica gets out of the car, as raindrops from an impending storm pelt the windshield. All this takes place before the film’s opening titles.
The next time we see Verónica she is being driven to the hospital in a downpour. Returning home after being X-rayed, she appears disoriented. She confesses to Marcos that she thinks she killed someone on the road. Juan Manuel visits and uses his connections with the police to inquire if there have been reports of a fatality near the canal; the answer is no.
But a week later, as Verónica and family members are driving on the same road, they come upon a crew dredging the canal, now filled with water from the storm, where a body has been discovered blocking a pipe. The stench makes them roll up the car windows and turn on the air-conditioner.
Only near the end of the film do two of the boys from the opening scene reappear. They are assistants to a landscaper on Verónica’s property, where a buried fountain or pool is discovered at the edge of a garden; one of their brothers didn’t “show up” for work, we learn.
When Verónica returns to the hospital to pick up her X-rays, she discovers that her brother has preceded her. Visiting the hotel where she met Juan Manuel, she finds there is no record of her having been in the room where they rendezvoused. Closing ranks, the men in her life have apparently protected her by erasing any evidence of her whereabouts the day of the accident; the car has been repaired. The changing of her hair color from blonde to dark brown signals her tacit complicity to forget what happened.
You could say “The Headless Woman” is a meditation on Argentina’s historical memory. It subtly compares Verónica’s silent disavowal of responsibility for any crime she might have committed with that country’s silence during its dictatorship, when suspected dissidents disappeared. In interviews Ms. Martel has suggested that “The Headless Woman” is about Argentina’s refusal to acknowledge a widening economic disparity between the middle and lower class. And the scenes of light-skinned Argentine bourgeoisie interacting with darker-skinned workers suggest that the two classes are mostly invisible to each other.
All of this is evoked in small gestures, overheard dialogue and in scenes in which people pass in and out of focus before a mostly stationary camera; some of the images suggest hovering ghosts. Ms. Onetto, who moves through the film wearing a stricken little smile, suggests a South American descendant of Kim Novak’s mystery woman in “Vertigo” and also a latter-day incarnation of Antonioni’s alter ego, Monica Vitti.
In its depiction of willed amnesia and collusion to conceal a hidden current of remembrance, “The Headless Woman” recalls Antonioni’s “L’Avventura,” in which a woman’s disappearance on a boating expedition is quickly forgotten once the mainland is reached. Like that same director’s “Blow-Up,” “The Headless Woman” is a metaphysical ghost story in which enigmatic clues are dropped about a possible crime that is never solved. The more closely you study “The Headless Woman,” the deeper and more unsettling are its mysteries.
THE HEADLESS WOMAN
Opens on Wednesday in Manhattan.
Written and directed by Lucrecia Martel; director of photography, Bárbara Álvarez; edited by Miguel Schverdfinger; art director, Maria Eugenia Sueiro; produced by Pedro Almodóvar, Agustín Almodóvar, Esther García, Verónica Cura, Enrique Piñeyro, Ms. Martel, Marianne Slot, Vieri Razzini, Cesare Petrillo and Tilde Corsi; released by Strand Releasing. In Spanish, with English subtitles. Running time: 1 hour 27 minutes. This film is not rated.
WITH: María Onetto (Verónica), Claudia Cantero (Josefina), Inés Efron (Candita), Daniel Genoud (Juan Manuel), César Bordón (Marcos), Guillermo Arengo (Marcelo) and María Vaner (Lala).