The Sleepwalker Awakes: "The Headless Woman", on DVD (IFC)

By Michael Atkinson

Bearing the sulphurous odor of a film artist with very particular and often well-hated views on how much visual narrative should mean and how little it should actually show or "make" us feel a certain way, Lucrecia Martel has made only three features, but immediately, at 35 with "La Ciénaga" (2001), she had a unique vocabulary and a unique voice. (She's also become, for whatever difference it might make, arguably the world's greatest working woman filmmaker.)

Sure, she falls into the neo-minimalist catalogue -- an idiotic label, given how inhabited and rich and unsolvable so many of those films are, by Tsai or Reygadas or Weerasethakul or Costa or whomever. But Martel's movies are entirely hers, breathtakingly sustained essays in unease that lance the cyst of our pressurized anxieties better than any genre film, as well as being experiments in how to experience story -- as spectacle, which is how Hollywood has come to define cinema, or as a mystery we have to wonder about and understand as a living metaphor for bigger, badder, hairier questions of emotional existence. One of the best (and, naturally, least seen) films of 2009, "The Headless Woman" is about disconnection -- so how can anyone have expected to connect?

Martel routinely lays into the comfortable, well-pickled Argentine bourgeoisie she apparently knows so well, and the new movie begins at a simple afternoon outing of mothers and kids and cars. But right away, the framing and cutting and layered busyness suggest an imbalance, a lack of seeing clearly, an impending catastrophe -- we're not being fed expository information, but instead observing the smug, shallow, utterly real nouveau riche as they walk some kind of precipice... Something's going to happen, and it won't be good.

When it does, we're still not sure what it is -- Veró (María Onetto), an aging bleached-blonde wife and mother, runs over something on the way home. But does she? She's not sure, either, but whatever happened, it cut her loose from her privileged moorings.

She stalks back into her life in a dumbfounded daze -- is she an amnesiac? Does she remember the husband, the kids, the old boyfriend who seduces her? -- and her discombobulation is so complete that her sleepwalk through rampaging affluence, where everyone is solicitous to her, becomes not only an existential dynamic but a political one as well. It's worth remembering, because Martel needs no reminding, how small a percentage the SUV-driving, couture-wearing suburbanites represent in South America, surrounded by oceans of poor people just like the ones that landscape Veró's garden.

Throughout "The Headless Woman," Martel keeps us as off-kilter as Veró, chopping up time and launching into traveling shots that imply wicked narrative torque, but which are, finally, just as enigmatic to us as the moments are to the half-lidded heroine. The experience is electrifying; like a journey through an underlit basement or a strange neighborhood after dark, you're wide awake. Onetto's performance is almost entirely passive, and is rather amazing for that, but Martel, and the subjective, upsetting lens she aims at the world, is the star.

If you have come to see movies, or really any narrative art form, as a perpetual conflict between how much should be explained away in unambiguous detail and how much should be left unsaid, coaxing us forward in our seats and asking us questions, then Martel's movie is a crucible you need to pass through.

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