The underlying mystery of 'The Headless Woman' (Los Angeles Times)
By Dennis Lim
With only three features to her credit, the Argentinian writer-director Lucrecia Martel is already among the most distinctive voices in world cinema. Fluid yet oblique, thick with atmosphere and almost trancelike, her movies look, sound and move like no one else's.
Martel's latest, "The Headless Woman," which received a brief theatrical run during the summer, is not just one of the year's best films but also one of the subtlest, perhaps the one that most requires and most amply rewards repeat viewings -- the DVD is out from Strand Releasing this week.
All of Martel's films unfold in a haze and grow out of a catalytic trauma.
In "La Ciénaga" (2001, Homevision Entertainment), a drunken matriarch, stumbling around poolside, falls on a broken wine glass.
In "The Holy Girl" (2004, HBO Home Video), a shy doctor presses up against a Catholic schoolgirl on a crowded street.
A few minutes into "The Headless Woman," Verónica (María Onetto), a middle-aged dentist, is driving alone when she reaches for her ringing cellphone and hits a dog . . . or is it a boy? Either way, she pauses to compose herself and drives on.
The rest of "The Headless Woman" doesn't make it any clearer what happened during this apparent hit-and-run but dwells instead on how Verónica and those around her deal with -- or, more to the point, psychologically defend themselves against -- the likelihood of her culpability.
Like Martel's earlier films, "The Headless Woman" is set in Salta, a northwestern province of Argentina at the foot of the Andes. (And, like "The Holy Girl," it bears the executive-producer imprimatur of Pedro Almodóvar.) It also further refines her singular visual style, which is at once abstract and sensual and which seemed to emerge fully formed in "La Ciénaga."
Martel's compositions are precise yet oddly cramped and skewed. What we can see is as important as what is obscured. Her trademark shot is an off-center close-up. She has a fondness for shooting through rain and glass. The depth of field is usually shallow, the background melting into a puzzling, sometimes unsettling blur. The bespectacled Martel craftily has suggested that her movies look the way they do because she's short-sighted.
Her approach to storytelling also compels the viewer to pay attention. She avoids establishing shots and elides back story. We are plunged into conversations and interactions we don't fully understand; relationships take some time to be clarified (and to further complicate matters, all three of her films depict oppressively close family ties).
Heavily reliant on off-screen sound and action, Martel's films invite us to look and listen for clues, even as they test the boundaries of perception.
"La Ciénaga" is set over a humid summer at a crumbling country house; "The Holy Girl" takes place at a rambling hotel that is hosting a medical conference. While both films divide their attention among large ensembles, "The Headless Woman" restricts itself to a single central character who is defined by the very disorientation that Martel's elusive cinema typically breeds.
But is the dazed, absent Verónica, who wanders through her daily routine as if discovering everything anew, suffering from shock or willed amnesia?
At least one thing is clear in this movie of many mysteries: Verónica's ability to move past her crime -- indeed to erase all trace of it -- is a luxury of her social standing. Martel's films frequently have touched on class, observing the dynamics between the Argentinian bourgeoisie and their servants.
From the murk of "The Headless Woman," a political allegory emerges: the so-called dirty war in Argentina, under Jorge Videla's dictatorship in the late '70s and early '80s, was marked by the disappearances of thousands of dissidents -- and by the willingness of those who could look away and remain silent to do just that.
Martel has professed an interest in genre film. Up next, reportedly, is a comic-book adaptation about an alien invasion. "The Headless Woman," through which Verónica drifts like a ghost, is a kind of horror movie (as its title implies).
The really frightening thing here is our ability to forget and to ignore: The film is both a testament to and an indictment of the human capacity for denial.