By Eric Haynes (IndieWire)
You’ve seen this empty canal before. Some boys and a dog were running around here, across the street and into it, just a few minutes ago. But you’re not prepared, five minutes into “The Headless Woman,” with a sunny pop song on the car radio, for the protagonist to hit something. Yet you’ll spend the rest of the film making sense of what happened here, of what you’ve seen and not seen. In the films of Lucrecia Martel you’re challenged to pay attention well before you’re ready, to play catch-up, figuring out who’s related to whom and what is relevant. But as with the protagonist’s subsequent disorientation, your heightened yet bewildered state isn’t a set-up or effect—it’s the point. Martel sharpens your senses—and celebrates and rewards them—while compelling you to distrust them.
In each of Martel’s first three features, a mysterious incident confounds characters and viewer alike, setting a tone that the Argentine director sustains yet also narratively subverts. In “La Cienaga” a woman falls onto her wine glass as drunk swimsuited houseguests fail to notice or care about the bloody mess; in “The Holy Girl” a man presses himself sexually against an impressionable young woman in a crowd; and in “The Headless Woman,” Martel’s latest knockout, Vero (Maria Onetto) hits something on the road, reacts strangely, then forgets herself. Martel reinforces disorientation by pairing shallow-focus close-ups with episodic narrative; hers are meandering stories presented as visual suspense. Although Vero’s gradual recovery of self and memory serves as Martel’s clearest through-line to date, dramatic resolution remains a low priority. At any moment there can be revelation, but confounding moments are destined to follow. Minor clarifications only deepen the major mysteries of consciousness and perception.
Vero makes for a suitably fascinating and enervating conduit in “The Headless Woman.” With regal calm beneath a nest of dyed blonde hair (a playful nod to “Vertigo”), Vero carries her beauty and class with comfort and easy entitlement. She’s a dentist, wife and mother, but considering how long it takes for her co-workers and family to notice her altered state, not a particularly engaged one. She’s captivating but passive, sensitive and callous, wary and childlike. She fights for the truth of her experience only to settle for willful ambivalence. During the accident sequence—a three-minute master class in framing, editing, and sound—Vero reveals herself in concentrated form. After she is stunned by the impact, her first movement, after stopping the car, is to collect and replace her sunglasses. Now inappropriately poised, she resumes driving while looking at a motionless mass—a dog?—receding in the rearview. She soon starts to cry, stops the car and gets out, and escapes beyond the frame. Later, as she rediscovers herself and recalls these events, she’ll cycle through more deliberated versions of these impulses and emotions. Crisis begets both terror and liberation, which leads to flight, the privilege of safety, and bounded anxiety. She remains opaque, the camera honoring her interiority while mining her face for the momentous.
Martel’s consciousness about race and class always seems subordinate but is sneakily central. All three of her films are told from the vantage of relative white power, with Argentine natives literally supporting these characters in household service positions. Martel’s approach to class in “The Headless Woman” is both more subtle and forceful. Fewer racist complaints about filthy, shady “Indians” are heard than in “La Cienaga” and “The Holy Girl,” but Vero’s entire existence depends on and is restored by privilege. A young boy whose corpse is found clogging the canals—Vero’s victim?—remains unidentified while Vero’s identity is exhaustively retraced. Even her guilt (itself a privileged emotion), though it prompts her to small generosities toward house staff and day laborers, assumes an interchangeability of the underclass. Martel’s shooting style reflects this as well, keeping Vero’s face (and by extension her psychology) in tight focus while others—gardeners, maids, cooks—move about within the haze of negative space. Yet Vero isn’t just a cover for subtextual preoccupations; Martel cares how the world looks from those amnesic eyes. Before she knows who or where she is, an army of attendants flurry about and scare the daylights out of her. With context lost they are literally aliens in her home, moving freely, wielding knives, invading space. Her perception has been made strange but true.
While such accommodations aren’t hard for Vero to relearn to accept, the limitations of being a woman are another matter entirely. Now that she’s mentally, if only temporarily, compromised, Vero’s husband and cousin (another of Martel’s ambiguously amorous family relations) are eager to take charge and whisk the accident away, as well as whatever autonomy she knew before or since. They deny the truth of her experience but give her a cover. She’s the fainter who’s caught, coddled, and controlled; she’s kept safe, but at a cost. “Nothing happened,” they assure her, and the horror is watching Vero accept the easy, life-negating lie as truth. Her husband (Cesar Bordon) later assures her that the dented car—the proof that something happened—can be fixed. “It’s nothing,” he says. “They hammer it a little from the inside.”
[An indieWIRE review from Reverse Shot.]
[Eric Hynes is a Reverse Shot staff writer.]
By Mike D'Angelo (IFC)
When each successive film from a new, audacious talent seems richer and more rewarding than the one before, it can sometimes be hard to tell whether the director is steadily improving or it's simply taking you some time and effort to learn how to watch his/her movies. Argentina's Lucrecia Martel arrived on the international film scene eight years ago with her unique style already fully formed; as much as I admired "La Ciénaga"'s exactingly off-kilter compositions and oppressively incestuous tone, though, I couldn't find much of interest lurking beneath that surface mastery. It took two viewings for "The Holy Girl" (2004), Martel's sophomore effort, to win me over, and even then I didn't fully understand why certain oblique, uninflected shots were doing such a harrowing number on my nervous system. Now along comes her magnificently confounding "The Headless Woman," and I officially surrender. Maybe she's finally put it all together, maybe I'm just slow -- either way, this is one stunning piece of work.
Still, it's tough to articulate precisely what's so discomfiting about it. Martel begins with what for her amounts to a high concept: On the way home from an outing with friends, a middle-aged, bottle-blonde woman, Véro (María Onetto), runs over something with her car. We've previously seen a couple of kids playing with their dog in that general area, and Martel shows us the victim -- or at least a victim -- in Véro's rear-view mirror. (Some critics claim this image is ambiguous, but on the big screen, at least, you can clearly see what's lying on the road.) Véro sees it, too, but simply drives on, betraying no particular emotion. And as we follow her around for the next few days, watching her interact with family and co-workers, it becomes evident that she's entered some sort of bizarre fugue state, to the point where it's not clear that she has any recollection whatsoever of who she is or what she does. Eventually, however, as she regains her bearings, one key memory emerges: She thinks she may have killed a child.
As pure filmmaking, "The Headless Woman" is indisputably superb and non-stop evocative; there's scarcely a shot that doesn't throb with ambiguous menace or portent. Indeed, there's a strong genetic resemblance to David Lynch's "Inland Empire," another tale of a wealthy middle-aged woman who tumbles down an unexplained rabbit hole. (Laura Dern and María Onetto, it turns out, are almost exactly the same age.) But where Lynch's overt surrealism and Dern's mannered mutations set my teeth on edge -- "golly, ain't this bizarre?" -- Onetto's aimless journey as She With No Noggin is truly the stuff of nightmares, if only because the lady will not stop smiling. The rest of the world chugs along as if nothing has happened, but Véro has come unmoored -- a sensation that we fully share, because Martel cannily stages the accident mere seconds after introducing the character, so that we know absolutely nothing about her. She's surprised to discover that she's a dentist, and so are we. Who is this man now suddenly kissing her? Beats her; beats us. And yet her reaction to each successive jolt is identical: vaguely warm indulgence. Nor is there a moment anywhere in the film where she identifiably regains her sense of self, though it's clearly happened by the time she makes her confession.
In truth, what Véro actually hit with her car doesn't much matter. It's her dissociated reaction that interests Martel -- that, and the way Véro's bourgeois circle both fails to notice the change in her and methodically covers up any evidence of the crime she may well have committed. On second viewing, I became more conscious of a pointed socio-political undercurrent: The kids we see in the opening scene are dark-skinned -- part of Argentina's sizable racial underclass -- and oblivious, porcelain Véro spends the rest of the movie moving amongst a baleful, barely glimpsed chorus of silent workers and servants, her amnesia symbolic of a larger, more willful ignorance. But that's a purely intellectual response, and it can't compare to the inexplicable feeling of anxiety inspired by, say, an apparently mundane shot of Véro as seen through the windshield of her car, wandering in a daze as fat raindrops begin to fall from the clouds overhead. Martel's ideas are plenty cogent and provocative, but they tend to register only afterward, when you try to work out what you've seen. It's her buzzsaw mise-en-scène that threatens to decapitate you.
CINEMA AS POST-TRAUMATIC STRESS DISORDER, Lucrecia Martel’s astounding The Headless Woman willfully disorients the viewer while forcefully indicting its subject. Great films have the power to unspool as dreams or nightmares; only the most exceptional, like Martel’s third feature, can make a spectator feel as if she is in a slightly concussed state.
The Headless Woman—shot, like Martel’s previous works, La Ciénaga (2001) and The Holy Girl (2004), in Salta, a city in northwestern Argentina (the director’s hometown)—begins with three boys and a dog playing, darting across a nearly abandoned highway to a canal. Their laughing and yelling transition, confusingly at first, to the sounds of other children, this group far more privileged, being shuttled back from some kind of family outing by various relatives. Among the adults is tall, bottle-blond, middle-aged Vero (a superb María Onetto). Alone in her Mercedes, listening to “Soley Soley,” a 1971 pop nugget, on the radio, she takes her eyes off the road to answer her cell phone, hitting something: a dog, or maybe one of the kids first seen playing by the road. Vero stops, tries to regain her composure, but drives off, never once looking back.
The sound and motion of the impact jolt us almost as much as Vero, who will spend the rest of the film nearly mute, confused (reporting to work at her dental practice, she takes a seat in the waiting room), terrified of sudden sounds, barely present at various family gatherings. (As in Martel’s first two films, the middle-class extended clan of The Headless Woman is vaguely incestuous: Vero is having an affair with her brother-in-law—or is he her cousin?—and her teenage niece seems to want to seduce her.) Midway through the film, she will dispassionately say to her husband, “I killed someone on the road.” The confession is not a precursor to accountability, triggering instead further concealment. Martel’s visual compositions (using 2.35 Scope for the first time), suggesting a state of consciousness alternately dulled and hyper-alert, and hallucinatory sound design reflect Vero’s psychic and moral collapse: a personal and political failing too readily abetted by those closest to her.
The Headless Woman opens August 19 at Film Forum in New York. For more details, click here.--------------------------------------------------------------
By Andrew Schenker (The Cine File)
An object for endless study, Lucrecia Martel’s The Headless Woman is – though this doesn’t come close to exhausting its achievement – a remarkable experiment in controlled perspective. It’s like watching yourself inside a dream – uncomprehending, illogical – everyone’s looking at you like you’re crazy (and maybe you are you) but you’re not quite sure why. After middle-aged Argentinean dentist Verónica (María Onetta) hits a dog with her car on a country road (or is it a young Indian boy? – she doesn’t stop to check and the image we get of the dog is of uncertain perspective – whose point-of-view is this anyway?), her place in her comfortable world – along with the stability of her viewpoint (and the film’s) – begins to crumble. (You might say she starts to lose her cabeza.) But Martel’s always in sharp command, keeping us close to Veró’s headspace, even as we’re never permitted to penetrate her consciousness; keying almost every shot to her perspective, even as the filmmaker rarely offers up direct p.o.v.s. Instead a typical framing might go something like this: Onetta’s head wedged into one side of the 'scope screen, the background mostly out-of-focus or, when it isn’t, revealing a flattened space with characters neatly arrayed, whispering half-audibly. The whole thing’s disorienting, but it’s absolutely precise in its rendering of disorientation – an achievement enhanced by the audio mix which isolates certain sounds, mutes others and generally keeps things off balance.
All of which serves to chart Veró’s increasing distance from her husband, family and overall lifestyle which, Martel makes clear, relies on a bevy of impoverished Indians serving a small group of light-skinned masters, cooking their meals, washing their cars, delivering their plants. Is Veró’s growing insistence that she hit a boy with her car – despite initial evidence to the contrary – an expression of bourgeois guilt? It’s hard to say. The lead character’s mostly a blank - we may share her disorientation but not her thoughts. But what is certain is that the ass-covering reactions of her male relatives to the possibility of vehicular homicide are clear enough expressions of bourgeois irresponsibility. Either way, the question remains: what exactly did she hit? But maybe that’s the wrong question to be asking. In a film as calculatingly oblique as this one any sense of a stable actuality is nebulous at best. Especially given the ending, when just as Veró seems to be making some kind of readjustment to her (now discredited) lifestyle, her notion of reality slips away entirely and, in Martel’s fevered rendering, the world at last becomes a literal blur.
by Michael Joshua Rowin (The L Magazine)
Argentine director Lucrecia Martel has compared filmmaking to running a doctor’s office, but her approach is less clinical than that metaphor implies. The spookiness of the senses is her subject, and in the spirit of Vitti-era Antonioni her third feature, The Headless Woman, evokes through environmental means the skewed mental state of Vero (Maria Onetto), a middle-aged bourgeois blonde who runs over a dog and suffers head trauma in the collision. Onetto’s presence thereafter is that of a zombie, eerily smiling and sleepwalking through her dentistry rounds, extra-marital liaisons and social obligations, as a network of friends and relatives barely notice her disengagement for all their haste, chatter and self-absorption.
Myriad lower-income laborers also wander in and out of focus, and Onetto’s growing consciousness of her class privilege and artificial happiness manifests itself as guilt when she begins to believe the road kill was a young street boy. Martel also literalizes the title in decentered compositions that decapitate Onetto, while unnerving sound design amplifications and off-kilter framings render her surroundings queasily unsettling: when her senile mother rambles that the house is full of the dead we know it’s the truth. Unexplained narrative odds and ends (including a gratuitous lesbian subplot) eventually lead Onetto back to the status quo, but Martel’s original touch in a film indebted to a long modernist tradition of domestic disorientation is making her wraith-like heroine’s reality one big question mark, punctuated, appropriately, by the most sinister hair color change since Vertigo.
Opens August 19 at Film Forum
The opening sequences of The Headless Woman set up a vivid and recognizable world: Three boys play with their dog on the side of a dirt road. Several women pack children into their cars after a picnic. The imagery and actions are simple and all-inclusive; the sense is that the film could focus on any of these characters to equally insightful effect.
Then one of the women, Verónica (Onetto), barrels down that unpaved stretch while reaching for her cell phone. There’s a sickening thud. The car screeches to a halt. She’s hit something. In that moment, Verónica completely loses her bearings, both physical and mental. Yet the world around her—the movie she inhabits—keeps moving.
What follows is an astounding portrait of a person entirely out of sync with her own existence. It’s not a particularly new subject in cinema, especially for anyone familiar with the work of Michelangelo Antonioni and Luis Buñuel, two incomparable artists often invoked in promotional copy for The Headless Woman. Yet writer-director Lucrecia Martel—aided immeasurably by Bárbara Álvarez’s probing, Peeping Tom camerawork—distinguishes this effort through a confident and expressive aesthetic all her own. We find out about Verónica’s background only as she does. A career, a family and an infidelity or two slowly come into focus, as does an implicit, guilt-ridden class bias. But The Headless Woman is no simplistic status parable. It’s more a psychological snapshot of a person forever doomed to remain a voyeur to her own life, something a climactic change of hair color (a hilariously Hitchcockian flourish) can only outwardly fix.—Keith Uhlich (Time Out New York)
her visage that the resulting performance simply rivets. Just watch as she drives a little too fast along a back road. When the key event happens, that face mirrors it all -- in both minute changes and major I-dont-want-to-deal-with-it drama. Ms Martel (shown at right), who grows in stature (in some ways, at least) with each new movie, knows how best to capture her actress' abilities. Where she places her camera, for how long, how she chooses to move that camera and then edit the results could hardly be improved. (Her cinematographer and editor here are, respectively, Bárbara Álvarez and Miguel Sverdfinger.)
If the remainder of her new movie kept pace with its first half hour, this would be the writer/director's best in all ways. Unfortunately most of its interest occurs upfront. By the end, I felt as though I'd been there/done that, though I admit to enjoying the being and doing, even second-hand. Part of the reason for my deja vu has to do with The Headless Woman's being so close in locale, feeling and character types to Martel's first international success,The Swamp (La ciénaga), and in the manner in which the satellite ensemble revolves around a main character, as in her sophomore effort The Holy Girl (La niña santa). In all three films Martel nails the anomie of bourgeois Argentine life and how it dissipates character.
After the first few minutes of the film, so little action actually occurs, I am tempted to dispense with all plot-telling and let you pick up what little there is on your own. This is one of those films in which nothing seems to happen but quite a lot goes on. Visits occur to the doctor and the hospital, shopping is done for home and garden, assignations happen, bits and piece of the past are brought, if not to light, at least to shadow. Through it all, Ms Onetto's character, Verónica, glides along, near-Zombie-like, speaking little or not at all, barely answering questions, yet being "taken care of."
I believe part of Ms Martel's point here is that woman's place in today's Argentina remains far too narrow and shallow. An inordinate amount of Veronica's life, particularly post-event, are handled for our main character by men -- husband, lover, brother -- leaving her "free" to float. By the end of the film, she's not only no nearer to learning the truth of what happened, she -- and we -- seem to wonder if much of anything occurred at all. (This, by the way, can be leveled not only at the tale told in the movie but at the film itself.) I believe that what she imagined happened did happen, though I have no real proof. Nor does she. What proof there may have been has disappeared. And if the word rings an oddly familiar bell, well, this is Argentina, where they're good at that.
Though The Headless Woman is definitely Ms. Onetto's movie, the rest of the ensemble is expert at defining character quickly (there's little exposition; the viewer is simply tossed into things). Among the cast is Inés Efron (from XXY and Glue), who has a small but piquant part in the proceedings. Distributed by Strand Releasing, the film begins a two-week run this coming Wednesday, August 19, at New York City's Film Forum. Further playdates around the country are expected, followed by a DVD release, one hopes.
-James van Maanen (TrustMovies)
By Glenn Kenny (Some Came Running)
First saw this puppy at Cannes last year, and this is what I wrote then:
"Confession time: as a result of hitting a Cannes wall that I really didn't see coming, I zoned out and occasionally even dozed through substantial bits of Argentinean director Lucrecia Martel's new film, the title of which translates as The Woman Without A Head. [Well, over-literally it does. The film's current U.S. distributors have given it a more apt title, I admit.—G.K.]Some of the detractors of the film (which does not feature any decapitations) might try to comfort me with the notion that the 87-minute-film is, in fact, boring. And while Mujer is a far quieter film than Martel's sardonic 2001 feature debut La Cienega, not to mention it's followup, 2004's The Holy Girl. Mujer doesn't lack for stuff—but the register of the film's nuances is so narrow that unless you're paying proper attention, the image will disappear before your eyes. A fancy way of saying that I need to see this story of the discreet guilt-trip of one particular bourgeoisie again.
The picture concerns a woman of privilege (Maria Onetto, who as a blonde here resembles a younger Geraldine Ferrarro—an unfortunate coincidence that could have disastrous effects for the film's U.S. prospects) who, reaching for her cell while driving, hits something (the first of the many jarring, convincing sound effects the picture throws up). We see a dog, but she believes she's killed somebody, and grows thoroughly withdrawn from her family and friends. Throughout, Martel places the character in shallow focus widescreen close-ups; therein, those people in her periphery—generally servants, workers, and so on—are diffused, hazy. It's an oblique way of reflecting on contemporary class relations, but it's apt, and in point of fact this is one of the few films in the largely-socially-conscious Competition that reflects on class relations as such. I also admired the way Martel drops in quasi-irrational elements; in one shot, Onetto goes to use a bathroom sink, as bizarre sparks emanate from a space behind her. For a moment one suspects that she's entered the world of Eraserhead, and then out of the space steps a welder. Such drollery is nevertheless in keeping with an overall dryness which makes me unsure as to whether I'd agree with a friend's assessment that this film is the Bunuel version ofA Woman Under the Influence. As I said, I'm gonna have to see it again."
And so I did, at the New York Film Festival later in the year, and man, did it ever kick in. My friend's assessment is utterly right-on. (We encountered Martel and her lead actress at a nice hole-in-the-wall Cannes restaurant a couple of nights later and gushed at them like teenage Beatle fans circa 1964.) The film is absolutely mesmeric, very apt to repay repeat viewings, and while it does make some very potent points, it does so seamlessly, without any hectoring. One thing I see that the reviewers talking about it today are missing is how weirdly funny it is. Which it is. The picture opened in New York's Film Forum today; see it if you're in town, keep your eyes peeled for it if you're not.
By Karina Longworth (SpoutBlog)
“It’s like an Antonioni film without the ennui,” I said to a friend after seeing Lucretia Martel’s impeccably opaque The Headless Woman, which opens at Film Forum today. This, he said, was what he liked about it — that Martel one-ups her forebears in the Cinema of Disorientation by refusing to seduce the audience with a mirror to their own emotional dissatisfaction. And that is great, and skillful, and interesting … but I miss the ennui.
It’s likely that this is the point of The Headless Woman – Martel rips Antonioniennui off its foundations by refusing to throw the audience a bone of indentification via the disorienting effects of lust/love. The Headless Woman deals with sex twice, in two separate encounters both coded as inappropriate; the film seemingly has no use for desire beyond its ability to show up depravity and mental disability. ‘
On further contemplation, I think Martel does, in fact, ask the viewer to find ways to relate to the post-traumatic stress/psychosis of Vero, a middle-aged woman who returns physically but not mentally to her bourgeois life after a car accident. Wandering through social and professional committments in a daze, Vero becomes convinced that she hit and killed a boy with her vehicle. Using swift cuts and temporal ellipses to toss us into Vero’s point of view, allowing us no frame of reference as to how she “normally” behaves or what the natural circumstances of her life even look like, Martel forces the viewer to engage by tapping into their own deeply-rooted anxieties about the nature of consciousness.
But the thing about existential despair is that it has nowhere to go (except for, possibly, Zabriskie Point); only in science fiction can characters go down the rabbit role of consciousness-questioning and come out with an answer. In Antonioni films, romance is a sham escape option — there is no way out, but in the films as in life, sometimes we can turn to another person to make us forget that — and a glimmer of hope, if only temporarily. Martel withholds hope. Antonioni’s films revolve around questions like, “Is my beautiful life sheltering me from the truth, and if so will sex make that better?” Martel’s film asks, “Is my beautiful life sheltering me from the truth, and if so can I live with not being able to do much about that?” Martel’s film does offer the darker, more realistic vision of Our Existential Trap, but for the viewer this cuts both ways. There is no false out, but there is also no pleasure.