Director: Lucrecia Martel
Our synopses give away the plot in full, including surprise twists
Salta, Argentina, the present day. A group of boys play on a road. Veronica, a middle aged woman, drives and becomes distracted by her mobile phone. She hits something. In the rear view mirror, she sees a wounded dog, but she does not check whether it was anything more than this. Veronica then checks herself into a hospital but seems distracted after her accident. Veronica then confesses to her husband, Marcos, and her brother-in-law, Juan Manuel, that she thinks she killed someone in this accident, but when no reports of an accident emerge, life returns to normal. Visiting a garden nursery, the proprietor informs Veronica that one of his boys has gone missing – his other boys are those from the opening scene. Driving past the exact place where it took place days later, she sees something being fished out of the canal, though she does not know what exactly. Newspapers report that a boy drowned at the exact scene, but there is no record of a hit-and-run accident. Veronica retraces her steps; including the hospital and hotel she checked into, but neither seem to have any record of her ever being there.
One of the leading film makers in the rising New Argentine Cinema movement, Lucrecia Martel secured her second Palme D’Or nomination in 2008 with ‘The Headless Woman’, following ‘The Holy Girl’, which was nominated in 2004. ‘The Headless Woman’ received a moderately lukewarm reaction from some critics at Cannes, and it is likely that this film will divide audiences. Indeed, the film half-enthrals and half-frustrates. Those familiar with the work and themes of Martel are more likely to warm to ‘The Headless Woman’, which is certainly one of the most intriguing films released this year, even if the overall effect is a little uneven.
The main strength of Martel’s film is her handling of the central conceit of the film; whether there was or was not an accident? If there was, then was it a boy Veronica killed, or the dog she saw from the rear-view mirror. Or whether it was merely imagined, and then in which case, why? There are numerous questions that Martel asks from this set-up and never provides easy answers. There are clues and hints of course, but by the film’s conclusion, we are none the wiser. For instance, the opening scene with the boys playing and then the scene in which the nursery owner mentions one of his boys is ‘missing’ hints at something sinister, but then reports of a drowning might counteract that. Yet what of the hotel and hospital having no recollection of Veronica’s existence? There is a crucial scene in which Veronica, startled and disorientated ‘forgets’ to sign her admission papers at the hospital, and even her brother, a surgeon, ominously says he has ‘taken care of it’. This narrative exists rather precariously and could fall apart in lesser hands, stretching credulity, but Martel handles it well, raising questions about the motivations of its protagonists and our own perception of the events we think we have seen.
It is possible however that the entire ‘accident’ is a MacGuffin; merely a ruse or incident that allows Martel to pursue wider, more important issues; namely an examination of the Argentine middle class. Under the military dictatorship, which ended in 1982, the notion of class boundaries would have been suppressed because of a more important notion of national unity. So a discernable middle class, with its own preoccupations and interests, has only emerged in the last two decades and continues to grow. Martel is more interested in casting a critical eye over this social class, rather than genuinely creating a film about an accident, which is possibly just a catalyst. When Veronica has her “accident”, she does not inform the police. This is not because she doubts it happened; it seems real enough. When she becomes convinced she killed someone, she still does not. Her husband and brother-in-law discourage her from doing so. Martel realises that because of the potential consequences, this family would have too much to lose, thus they conspire to forget and ignore. A consensual policy of self-protection and self-preservation to maintain this bourgeois idyll begins, though because of Veronica’s increasingly fragile emotional and psychological state, this becomes increasingly precarious.
Perhaps the most important feature of ‘The Headless Woman’ is Martel’s ability to graphically demonstrate Veronica’s moral confusion and interior psychology. This is achieved by overlapping dialogue, which much of the time Veronica does not seem to hear or pay attention to, but captures her disorientation and trauma exceptionally well. Martel methods of shooting also achieve the same. She refuses to use subjective shots, thus showing Veronica’s own point of view and perspective. The camera remains neutral, observing rather than reflecting a state of mind. Veronica features in almost every shot, almost always in the foreground with a shallow focus of the camera. It is Veronica who is constantly emphasised in each shot, even though Martel’s busy mise-en-scene reveals other characters and events taking place in the background. Of course Veronica is too startled and disorientated to notice what else is going on, hence the equally blurred and confused cinematography.
The critical bewilderment to ‘The Headless Woman’ is semi-understandable. It is not straight-forward, it rejects simple resolutions and explanations, and its themes might often be too oblique. However there should be no doubt that this is progressive and thought-provoking film making from one of the rising talents in world cinema. Where Martel impresses most is her remarkable ability to capture Veronica’s guilt and confusion and represent this both visually and aurally. The absence of genuine characterisation can be excused because essentially the film is more important than the mere fates of a handful of people. It is an observation and reflection of an entire social class; its insularity, its relationship with other social classes, and its self-preservation when threatened. By this yardstick, Martel’s film succeeds.