(Dir. Lucrecia Martel, Argentina, 2008)
A Privileged Few
In a growing class of filmmakers whose oeuvres are distinctly cinematic, relative newcomer Lucrecia Martel is slowly establishing herself as a refreshingly idiosyncratic, commanding voice in cinema. Since her impressive debut in 2001 she has directed only three features, and while her first two hinted at greatness, her third marks her best work yet by a wide margin. With only those three films to her credit, Martel has already proven herself as an artist with a clear authorial vision; each of those works bears similar themes, setting, and aesthetic. The Headless Woman, then, is the clearest, most concise document of this singular vision. It courts societal issues of contemporary Argentine life rooted in the nation’s history – primarily racial and socioeconomic tension between the white middle class and the Amerindian working class – as did La Ciénaga and The Holy Girl. And, like those two films, The Headless Woman scans the social climate both subtly and realistically within the confines of its loose narrative.
The precipitating event that jumpstarts Martel’s narrative occurs within the film’s first few minutes nearly free of context. It should go without saying at this point that one shouldn’t expect establishing shots or scene-setting exposition from Martel as she most often opts for intense viewer participation. The film opens with a trio of boys playfully running about and chasing each other around and through a dried up canal on the side of a dusty country road. This scene gives way to a group of chatty women of European descent standing around their parked cars bidding each other farewell. One such woman immediately demands our attention as her thick curly hair is dyed bleach blonde in sharp contrast to the shades of black and brunette around her. Not surprisingly, Martel’s camera takes off with this woman named Vero (Maria Onetto) as she gets in her car and speeds off down a country road toward home. A bubbly pop song plays over the radio when Vero’s cell phone rings. And, when she takes her eyes off the road to reach down and grab it, she hits something substantial that causes her to lunge forward smacking her head and stalls her car.
Martel impressively captures this sequence in one uninterrupted take with the camera tightly framed on Vero and the steering wheel. After the crash Vero is clearly in shock as her face contemplates which emotion to express. She slowly composes herself and picks up her fallen sunglasses. Her hand lingers over the door handle briefly before she decides not to look behind her and continue driving. The remainder of the film hinges on this crucial choice that determines both the trajectory of Vero’s downward spiral and comments on the elite position she holds within society. Of course, none of this is gleaned from this initial sequence. Martel is far too nuanced a filmmaker to allow histrionics or elementary cause and effect scenarios to propel her film. Instead, she uses this altering event in one woman’s life to examine her societal and racial privilege as her eyes are slowly opened to this dichotomy that exists within sight but typically out of mind.
Immediately following the accident, Martel chronicles the steady decline of an individual teetering on the verge of a breakdown – wondrously conveyed by Onetto’s impeccable performance – while the details of her personal life remain fittingly obscure. She begins forgetting things, appears mentally removed from any given situation, and behaves erratically – all while a growing awareness of a different demographic increasingly forces her outside herself. Those of Native American descent are suddenly all around her – the nurses and technicians at the hospital, her housemaids, her gardener, the local florist, a mechanic working in a public restroom, her chore boy, the object of her niece’s affection. Of course, these individuals were always there before, but Vero seems far more concerned with their presence than her white family and friends around her.
It’s around this simple notion that Martel explores the idea of Argentine social privilege with a fierce observatory gaze. Her camera trails Vero intensely; even when she is not the scene’s primary speaker, she remains in extreme close-up, in focus while others are blurred, or in the foreground of the frame. At all times Martel asks us to question Vero’s actions, her behavior to surmise how the accident affects her. Ultimately, the film is less concerned with whether or not she actually killed a young Native American boy – though revelations later in the film suggest that she probably did – and more about how a woman in her position can escape the consequences of such an assertion. Guilt rattles Vero throughout, but when she finally confesses to her husband Marcos (César Bordón) that she believes she killed someone, he and his cousin Juan Manuel (Daniel Genoud) begin quietly, yet hurriedly patching things up to ensure Vero is never implicated.
Vero may very well slip past the notice of the proper authorities, but she can do nothing to evade the watchful eye of her creator. In refusing to absolve Vero of this potential crime, Martel shifts her focus to personal damage – observed in Vero’s ensuing breakdown – rather than in the arguably more just public sphere. Her family may go to great lengths to protect Vero from her own actions, but the accident continues to haunt her until the very end. Details of a missing boy who’s eventually found dead begin to surface and invade every facet of Vero’s life – the boy’s body is found nearby while she’s driving around with her cousin, the unsolved mystery appears in the newspaper, and the florist who delivers pots of flowers to her home reveals that the deceased used to work for him. She can’t escape this guilt. The point is driven to its metaphorical extreme when Vero visits her aunt suffering from dementia who barks about ghosts haunting her house only for a small boy to emerge from the shadows as if to remind Vero of her own persistent ghost. Of course, we learn in the next scene that this boy is the son of the aunt’s caretaker, but the effect his presence has on Vero remains.
Martel’s entire film unfolds in this way. With The Headless Woman, she has crafted a powerful visual metaphor for the harsh reality of privilege and how it unfortunately typically trumps justice. Martel proves herself a modern master of the craft with her confident grasp of the cinematic tools to create lasting art. Her meticulous mise-en-scène, intentional framing, unnerving use of sound, and cinematography unite to tell this story that is both distinct from traditional narrative cinema and other mediums of artistic expression. In one of the film’s finest scenes, Juan Manuel agrees to call a friend at the police station to put Vero and Marcos at ease. He believes that if anything substantial had happened, he would have heard about it as a prominent doctor. The cousins carry on their own conversation seated on the sofa in the background, while Vero remains in the foreground, right of center. The action and dialogue occur between her husband and his cousin, but Martel keeps them out of focus. Vero hears something upstairs and moves toward the right of the frame, but Martel’s camera moves with her, fixating on her and eliminating all others from the camera’s eye. With a simple camera movement and careful framing, Martel conveys depths about this character – she is emotionally detached from her surroundings, cognizant of her own wrongdoing, but exempt from ever having to answer for it. It’s a simple but expertly executed sequence that bears testament to Martel’s superior filmmaking skills. The Headless Woman is her masterpiece, but as it is also only her third film, there’s hope that we have yet to hear more from this enthralling artist.