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Head Games: A Review of The Headless Woman

Kenneth Crab Sep 3, 2009

The Headless Woman (La mujer sin cabeza)

Directed by Lucrecia Martel

Strand Releasing, 2008

In the brilliant lyrical memoir Sleepless Nights (1979), Elizabeth Hardwick describes her mother as a woman whose “femaleness was absolute, ancient, and there was a peculiar, helpless assertiveness about it.” Such ambiguity also characterizes Verónica (María Onetto), the perpetually bemused, gently immaculate protagonist of The Headless Woman, Argentine director Lucrecia Martel’s third feature. For little under 90 minutes, the film traces her drawn-out, delayed reaction to running over something or someone on an otherwise deserted country road. While ebbing through the shadowland of Veró’s subjectivity, the elliptical storyline does not make clear whether the state of shock she suffers as a result of this incident enhances or numbs her sense of perception and awareness, nor whether it renders her role in daily life more precarious or expedient.

Until she reveals the pivotal hit-and-run, no one even notices the trancelike inertia in her behavior. Everyone around her—from the maid at home and the assistant at her dental practice to a slew of relatives—answers and acts in her stead as a matter of routine attentiveness. Endowed with the screen presence of a Latin Catherine Deneuve by Onetto’s unflinching, regal performance, Veró appears like a queen bee, imperious yet passive. Through the guilt she carries, she becomes the unlikely catalyst who exposes the quagmire of fears and desires that run beneath her family’s lassitude. Their incestuous leanings and history of insanity—bemoaned by the bedridden Aunt Lala (María Vaner) – gravitate around her like a force field of the haute bourgeoisie’s charmless indiscretions, which she has inadvertently stolen away from. Many critics have pointed to Luis Buñuel and David Lynch as key influences on The Headless Woman, but its true cinematic pedigree-as indeed Lynch’s—lies with Hitchcock, and especially the pinnacle of his American career: the duplicitous, defiant, thieving women of Vertigo (1958), Psycho (1960) and Marnie (1964). (Veró’s change of hair color early in the film could be a direct reference to the last of these.)

Veró reveals her anxiety of having killed somebody to her husband when the body of a boy—probably a drowning victim of the rain storm that swept the area the day of her freak experience—is found in a drain. Even if she didn’t kill the boy, she is guilty of his death because of her social privilege over him, so her assumption of guilt becomes a transgressive act, which the men of the family strive to contain. The Headless Woman channels class through gender in a road movie down memory lane, with memory not envisaged as a reflection of the past, but a constant index of what Borges termed “the sacred disorder of our lives.” Time seems out of joint—a couple of hit songs suggest the narrative takes place in 1971, while the use of cell phones indicates a much more recent setting—and the writer-director renders the impact of its indeterminacy with exquisite formal precision: associative editing and use of sound, ghostly lighting effects, an approach to framing that favors depth over range, projection over visibility. (The bodies of the dead are never shown in ‘evidence,’ just as the home movies Aunt Lala watches are not presented as historical record, but object of her fancy.)

When Veró returns to the hospital where she had head X-rays taken, all traces of her treatment have vanished, as if it had never happened. The logical cause of this disappearance would be an effort at damage control on the part of her husband, but in a film with such a porous design of reality-in-flux, it proves more suitably attributable to the power of her imagination. Signs of life resuming a mode of continuity—Veró wears her hair dark again, another pop song (The Pop Tops’ “Mammy Blue”) picks up where the one that was playing in her car (Middle of the Road’s “Soley Soley”) left off—do not signify a return to status quo. Under a conformist veneer, the final scene of Martel’s exceptional woman’s film, like that of Barbara Loden’s Wanda (1970), transforms anonymous social immersion into a liberating escape from selfhood for its acephalic heroine.

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