Reviews

La Mujer sin cabeza

Lucrecia Martel

Argentina / France / Italy / Spain, 2008

Credits

Review by Jenny Jediny

Posted on 17 October 2008

Source 35mm Print

Categories The 46th New York Film Festival

Lucrecia Martel’s The Headless Woman is precisely the kind of film that might slip by if you step out, even briefly, and undoubtedly requests a second viewing. This is a compliment: Martel’s film is both atmospheric and intangible, and commands attention. Although it almost feels like a mystery, and nearly like a psychological drama, there’s more of a deep experimental sensibility to The Headless Woman, as well as a stubbornness: it will let us in only as far as its characters will allow themselves to acknowledge the reality of the tragedy that may have occurred around them—that is, not very far at all.

In many ways, The Headless Woman brought to mind my favorite film from last year’s New York Film Festival, Gus Van Sant’s Paranoid Park. An accidental death is the obsession in both, and like Park, it matters little if you’re aware of the impending loss prior to seeing the film; in fact, it may be better if you are. Martel doesn’t navigate her way toward the death—she questions whether or not it actually happened: Did Verónica really hit a young boy with her car, or was it just the dog? What’s remarkable is her reaction, or rather her lack of one, and where this leads her.

Engaging both sound and sight, The Headless Woman has moments that overlap in beauty and with their curiousness attain a certain level of intrigue. The rush of chatter between mothers leaving a pool with their children, the remoteness of the highway where several young men play with a dog, and the haunting handprint sunlight catches on Verónica’s window all create a feeling of immersion into stilled consciousnesses. We are not allowed beyond the boundaries of Verónica’s dulled awareness. Resolution is not an option or the endpoint here; the experience itself is paramount.

Essentially, these sensory moments are the only way we have remote insight into Verónica ‘s response when the thud rattles her car. It’s a marvelously eerie moment: while not filmed in slow-motion, it absolutely feels like time has stopped, before it suddenly pushes forward again. Shock, with all its confusion and ensuing self-doubt, is the complex state that Martel – and Maria Onetto, the actress portraying Verónica – doesn’t try to understand so much as convey through subtle gestures.

The time it takes Verónica to even acknowledge that her hit-and-run may have killed more than a dog feels like an eternity compared to the quick way her family moves to assure her it can’t be true—all the while investigating to see if, perhaps, there was an accident reported that night. The lack of ramification for this anonymous death has rattled some critics, and there seems to be a slight commentary on class entitlement within the film, particular to Argentina. More effective in my mind is the slow erasure of guilt from Verónica’s conscience, the act of convincing herself that this ugly possibility simply can’t be true, that even the body found in the canal has to be someone else, mistakenly drowned.

An impenetrable map to Verónica’s stifled mind, The Headless Woman taps into a well of emotions, nearly none of them pleasant, and yet all of them made me want to watch this once again. In a way, Martel’s film upends our privileged status as the outsider looking in; while a hit-and-run is unquestionably condemnable, what of the desire to become engrossed in the aftermath, so much so that it’s easy to forget there even was a death. As frustrating as it is alluring, The Headless Woman is not only one of the more challenging films to emerge from cinema this year, it’s one of the finest.

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