The Headless Woman

By David Sin

headless-woman-lucrecia-martel.jpgThe Headless Woman, 2008

The opening scenes of Lucrecia Martel’s The Headless Woman bear some resemblance to that of another 2008 Cannes Competition film, Nuri Bilge Ceylan’s Three Monkeys – a driver hits someone or something with their car, and makes no attempt to clear up the accident. But where Ceylan’s film advances from that starting point, developing into a tale of secret and lies, concerning itself with moral choices and behaviour, Martel focuses in – literally – on the disoriented psychological state of her lead character, her feelings and descending mental condition. From the accident on, the film presents itself as a series of increasingly fractured and fragmented interiors, designed around heightened sound, medium and close ups, with few establishing shots. As such, it’s not an easy film to stand back from and evaluate and, sure enough, the film received a rough ride at Cannes from critics unable or unwilling to allow themselves to submit to its intense and unconventional impressions.

Of course the film’s imagery replicates the perspective of the lead character, Vero, a middle aged woman thrown into confusion by the accident and who may be suffering from a neurological condition. There are few actions or gestures in the film that are presented at first hand, or in any way clearly viewed. Even the accident itself, seen only from within the car, and then via a rear view mirror, is presented as a sequence of effects rather than an event in itself. Did she in fact hit a stray dog, or could it have been one of the boys criss crossing the same road at the beginning of the film. Which images from the film can we trust, and which are skewed through Vero’s mind? Martel refuses to allow the audience easy markers of narrative cause and effect, because, as experienced from Vero’s singular perspective, the world simply doesn’t reveal itself in such a way. So the film unravels as a mystery, but one which doesn’t advance to a resolution, preferring instead to dwell on the Vero’s attempts to make sense of what happened. This relentless formal rigour makes Martel’s film such an exemplary work of psychological cinema.

headless-woman-lucrecia-martel-2.jpgThe Headless Woman, 2008

The partial perspectives offered by the film are also exaggerated by Martel’s use of off-screen space, so effective in her previous feature work. Vero’s illness brings with it the symptoms of disorientation and amnesia. Her once straightforward view of the world is immediately disrupted as if the world itself is knocked off its axis. So in spite of medical interventions, she remains confused, sleepwalking through a series of half conversations, shots without reverse shots, recalled sounds and half glimpsed views. Martel constructs the film from remnants of action that conventional narrative cinema normally edits out. This overriding feeling of disorientation is translated into the film’s other strong element, the satirical portrait of the bourgeois world which Vero inhabits but is suddenly socially estranged from by the indifference of her family and friends to her illness. This aspect of the film extends Martel’s representation of a social class enveloped by ennui, so brilliantly presented in her debut feature La Cienaga.

The Headless Woman is screened at the Discovering Latin America Film Festival.

David Sin is a Freelance Consultant and Interim Director of the Independent Cinema Office.