The Headless Woman (La Mujer Sin Cabeza)
Director: Lucrecia Martel
Argentina, 2008, 87mins, rated 12A
Screening: The Renoir, 20 February 2010
One of the real pleasures of art cinema is the likelihood of having your intelligence respected by a film-maker. Film’s such a powerful medium because of its myriad complexities and its ability to communicate on multiple cerebral and visceral levels. And yet it's depressing that so few film-makers seem to have the ability to connect with us through it. As the small number of film-makers with something to say – and the ability to say it – struggle to get their work noticed, a general mediocrity pulls us ever further down the river of shit, dulling our expectations as we gawp at the bleak surroundings. But then, thank bog, something like The Headless Woman comes along and reminds us how mesmerising the experience of cinema can be.
The third feature from Argentinean writer/director Lucrecia Martel, The Headless Woman is an enigmatic and sneakily unsettling study of suburban bourgeois life. Showing a real understanding of the subtleties of film-making – as well as a biting outlook on her country's class, race and gender issues – Martel has created a unique film with a narrative style that is testament to the power of engaging cinema. Reminiscent of some of the most thought-provoking films of the last decade (Haneke's Hidden and Lynch's Inland Empire sprang to mind) The Headless Woman generates an inimitable tension as it unfolds its story like a puzzle – grabbing your imagination and not letting go until it’s finished.
After a short, oblique prologue, The Headless Woman opens on the aftermath of a children's party. Placed right in the mêlée, we meet characters – mothers, their children, their workers – in a chaotic bustle of people saying their goodbyes, collecting serving dishes and rounding-up kids into cars. The camera’s handheld, the shots close-up and the sound a barrage of voices, dog barks and slamming car doors. Snatches of conversation are picked up – he did this, she said that, what about the turtles in that swimming pool that’s opened behind the vet's practice... It's an intriguing and disorientating introduction that gives virtually no quarter to standard narrative exposition.
We follow one of these women – an attractive middle-aged lady played by María Onetto – as she drives alone through the arid Argentinean countryside. The camera is fixed on her face from the point of view of the passenger seat, gazing at her unflinchingly as she drives. There are no cuts, no pans, we just soak up this intriguing woman (through the beautiful, lusciously 70s looking photography of Bárbara Álvarez) and her expensively coiffeured brassy blonde hair, her enigmatic Kim Cattrall-like face, distant eyes, slightly self-satisfied smile and weary, detached air. As she drives we're back in the landscape of the prologue. Her mobile rings, she bends to pick it up and wallop, she hits and runs over something, a dog perhaps, or possibly worse. She might also bang her head, it's not completely clear. She drives on, shocked and shaken, seemingly unable to accept or acknowledge what just happened. She doesn't look back.
From this auspicious start, Martel weaves a masterfully engaging narrative around this curious woman. As the film continues it’s like trying to build a jigsaw puzzle with no reference picture, just a woman's face already placed in the centre. It's not a wild, lost-at-sea ride like Inland Empire, but there are similarities. It could almost be a companion piece to Lynch's last film – another woman in trouble, but older, doubtful, trapped and alienated by the familiarities of her world. Slowly and subtly, Martel reveals this woman's life, while at the same time showing us her complete bafflement to it. Her family come into view, the women blustering and fussing over her now imperfect hair; the men logical, predictable, unsettled by her detachment and seeking to quickly gloss over the appearing cracks. We see a disconnection in these people's suburban lives, the futility of this pampered Latin American class who rely on their ethnic Argentine workers for everything – to clean, eat, shop, even work.
As the woman tries to reconnect with her life, momentum builds and more of the jigsaw comes together. Metaphors deepen the scope: garden plants are bought and fountains are dug. Containers are needed but temporarily out of reach. A society is revealed, then picked apart. Slowly, gradually, the woman comes back together again, but now changed, awoken perhaps, freed from something that wasn't herself. She changes physically too, moves away from her constructed image; a smile returns to her face, but it's now more confident and more natural than before. And yet all the while something rotten waits out in the countryside.
Maria Onetto loses her head
Watching The Headless Woman felt like an event. Not a grand cinema 'event' like a new James Cameron movie, but something acute and intimate shared between film-maker and audience. That people walked out midway through only enhanced that feeling. If I've any criticisms, the first would be with myself for not speaking Spanish. With the close, naturalistic style Martel uses, subtitles fail to get across the bustling nature of many of the dialogue scenes and you often get the feeling you're missing out on subtleties. My other criticism would be with the pace. It starts so soporific, such a challenge to grasp a narrative thread without recourse to familiar movie techniques (establishing shots, for instance), that when the speed of the narrative does eventually increase, it seems to come so late in the film (which is only 87mins anyway) that it finishes at an awkward point. And yet, while it did feel unnatural at the time of viewing, it certainly struck a chord and kept the film revolving in my head days beyond the final credits, so maybe that was the intention.
The Headless Woman clearly wont be everyone’s cup of tea – it probably asks too much from an audience overly used to being led by the hand through undemanding Hollywood fare. But still I urge you to see it, regardless of your perceived tastes, as this is a genuine treat for anyone who loves film. Ok, maybe not anyone, but if you ever feel piqued at your intelligence being undermined and long for a film that shows you some respect – you know, like they ‘used to’ make them – I’d recommend giving this one your attention. Maybe this is just how they make films in South America, I don’t know, I guess I just haven’t seen enough of them, but I think what Lucrecia Martel has created with The Headless Woman is a completely unique and engaging piece of cinema that will not only have a wealth of different meanings for different viewers, but that communicates these meanings in a totally captivating way. A bold and challenging work.
© William Thomas at 6:41 pm