Call her Argentina's Almodovar (The Globe and Mail)


From Friday's Globe and Mail

Director Lucrecia Martel has made three feature films since 2001, and while each has its own tone and narrative, they all share a location, certain themes and visual style that have made her one of the most distinctive directors to emerge this decade. All three films can be seen in the Cinematheque Ontario series, Holy Girls & Headless Women: The Films of Lucrecia Martel, starting today in Toronto. In particular, her most recent film, The Headless Woman, gets its Canadian theatrical premiere over the next week.

With two of her films accepted in competition at Cannes, and Pedro Almodovar signed on as her producer and mentor, Martel is the most high-profile of the younger filmmakers lumped into the category of the New Argentine Cinema, emerging out of Argentina's economic and social chaos around the turn of the millennium. Martel's region is Salta Province, in northwest Argentina. Her social milieu is the conservative middle-class, and her stories a full of sexual and class tensions and foreboding. Visually, Martel's films are dense and impressionistic, often shot in close-up or with a shallow depth of field, as if throwing the viewer into the middle of the story's moral tangles.

Her first feature, 2001's The Swamp, explored two families in a crumbling vacation home dealing with heat, rain, alcoholism, accidents, claustrophobia and spiritual malaise. Martel's second film, The Holy Girl, which was accepted in competition at Cannes in 2004, had similarities - sweltering heat, pools of water and simmering sexuality. The titular character, a 14-year-old girl, is the daughter of a lonely divorcée who runs a local hotel. When a man rubs against her during a street show, the convent-trained girl sees the event as a calling and she sets out to save him, even if it ruins him.

Martel's most recent film may be the most complex and maddening so far, an unsolved mystery that puts the viewer in the perspective of a partly amnesiac woman. Vero (Maria Onetto), a middle-aged woman with a new blond dye job, drives off from a swimming party alone in her car. Distracted when her cellphone drops, she hits something with her car and bangs her head. She doesn't stop to find out what she hit, but we see a dead dog lying on the road - and what about those hand prints on the car window? Were they left by the children playing in her car earlier, or are they fresh?

In any case, the prints are soon washed away by a torrential rain storm. Vero goes to the hospital, then a hotel (the drive, the rain and the hotel have distinct echoes of Marion Crane's journey in Alfred Hitchcock's Psycho). A man at the hotel recognizes her and takes her up to a room. He makes love to her. The next morning, he drops her off at home.

When she emerges from the shower, she finds her husband Marcos. Marcos has just returned from a hunting trip, and there's a dead deer on the kitchen counter. Her maid tells her she's late for the office and calls her a cab. She walks into a waiting room. She stands looking confused, and an assistant puts on her coat. It seems she's a dentist, and has work to do. She wears a quizzical smile on her face like a comic mask, trying to guess what is expected of her.

The lover of the earlier scene, Juan Manuel, is a relative by marriage, married to Josefina, who is either Vero's sister or cousin. Josefina and Juan Manuel have a teenage daughter, Candita, who suffers from hepatitis and hangs out with the local street girls. Candita is apparently sexually attracted to Vero. As they watch a video of an old family wedding, we discover Vero has two grown daughters and that the wedding guests, years before, included some well-connected political types.

During a shopping trip, Vero tells Marcos that she thinks she killed someone in her car the weekend of the storm. At first Marcos tells her she's mistaken. Like Hamlet, all occasions do inform against her: A gardener tells her there's a fountain or pool buried underneath her back yard. The silhouettes of children pop up at the edge of the film frame; there are the sounds of water and children's voices. Then, when it appears Vero may have reason for her premonitions, the men folk descend quietly and efficiently to wipe away any evidence of a crime.

Though it's theme of middle-class, willful amnesia is obvious enough, The Headless Woman is effective as a kind of existential horror story, about a woman who finds evidence of her existence has been erased. Someone is dead, but it is Vera who has become a ghost of a human being.

The Headless Woman runs from Nov. 27-Dec. 3 at Cinematheque Ontario (for more information: http://www.cinemathequeontario.ca or 1-877-966-FILM).

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