"The Headless Woman": The Director with a Head By Lucy Virgen

in 30th Havana International Festival of the New Latinamerican Cinema

by Lucy Virgen

Once upon the time, there was a woman who lost her head. She lost her peace of mind; she lost her ability to focus. What she did not lose were her wits. Except for a brief moment, she was always collected; her voice was calm, even when she said: “I killed somebody”.

Lucrecia Martel’s third movie The Headless Woman (La Mujer Sin Cabeza), shown in the Official Competition at the Havana Film Festival, premiered at Cannes to mixed reviews, none of them lukewarm. Critics loved or hated the film, with no one in the middle. Martel, as calm and collected as the main character of her film, didn’t seem surprised with the reactions. She knows her film is as difficult as it is apparently simple.

The Headless Woman is the story of Verónica (María Onetto), an upper-class Salteñan woman who has an accident on the highway. It was only a bump and a noise, a dent in the car. Although a dog can be seen lying lifeless in the road, Vero is sure she has killed someone — and when an actual human body is found days later, she can’t be any more certain. The peculiar thing about the film is that the audience can believe either explanation, because the film provides evidence for both of them; this ambivalence could account — at least in part — for the passionate critical responses. Vero could well have a moral dilemma, or could be suffering a nervous breakdown for no real reason; every viewer must choose what to believe.

Vero is almost constantly onscreen, she drives the story in the busy, multi-layered scenes assembled with Martel’s personal stamp. The woman is lonely, but she’s almost always seen with someone: She has a husband, two (briefly glimpsed) daughters and even a lover, but she trusts no one. The major dent from the crash was not in the automobile’s bumper but in her head, suddenly she is very much aware of the non-stop talking going on around her, of her mother’s painful remarks, and suddenly, all of this is meaningless. After the accident, she keeps to her schedule and tries to act sensibly, but her actions seem foreign even to herself.

The storyline is very simple but the implications could not be deeper. The abrupt way Vero’s husband denies even the possibility of her having committed any kind of crime; he doesn’t even consider that she might be right. He talks about her loneliness, the lack of weight Vero’s words carry. He is not protective, but in complete denial; he is protecting her, after a fashion, but mainly he protects himself, and succeeds in doing so: He is unable to discover her obvious extramarital affair.

Martel’s previous works, The Swamp (La Ciénega)and The Holy Girl (La niña santa) showed us a provincial society, closed, somewhat bored, only talking to itself without hearing from anyone on the outside. The Headless Woman is an even more incisive portrait of such society: The “others” are always present, but hardly ever in focus. They don’t even have names. They talk, but are seldom heard; they are the domestic help, “the monkey who helps me here”, “the boy who died”.

The way this society covers up the crime is not like the Los Angelinos keeping a corpse from being discovered in Short Cuts, or the Australians in Jindabyne. The crime is never discussed, nor planned to be discussed; the situation is not made light of, but simply and completely denied. The same solution is applied to any worry: The woman criticizes another woman’s lesbian daughter, while her young daughter is flirting with a girl at the automobile’s window.

From her first film, Lucrecia Martel has shown a subtle way with storytelling and a good hand with actors; she’s now a master of her method. In The Headless Woman, she plays with sound, she changes the camera’s focus and point of view; she has the strength to keep all of the simultaneous conversations going without changing to a deeper subject and in this way shows us characters who don’t have more interesting issues — for them, there is only the pool, the pet turtles, the flower pots. They couldn’t talk about a missing boy because they didn’t even know of his existence; he only makes a mark in their lives because he was able to unload big containers at the nursery. The tragedy is they are not covering up; it’s that their lives are simply that shallow.

Once upon a time there was a filmmaker who had a head. Many wanted to cut it off, some wanted it to soften up. Against all odds, Lucrecia Martel has kept her head.