Earlier this year, amid all the hype surrounding Katherine Bigelow’s Oscar win, another, possibly more impressive, achievement by a female director went ignored in the mainstream media. In a poll of hundreds of New York’s film experts to determine the best Latin American films of the last decade, the top spot did not go to standards like Y Tu Mama Tambien, City Of God or Amoros Perros, but rather to Lucrecia Martel’s 2001 debut, La Cienaga. In fact, all three of her films wound up in the top ten of that list. 2004’s The Holy Girl, in my opinion her best work yet, finished ninth, and 2008’s The Headless Woman, which is playing at the MFA this week, finished eighth. No other director had more than one in the top ten. I highly recommend seeking out copies of her first two films, but it’s the third that concerns us at the moment.
People have spent the last decade comparing Martel to Michelangelo Antonioni, and it would appear that she’s taken some of that to heart. Aside from some more interesting aesthetic and thematic choices, the basic plot of The Headless Woman bears some similarities to that of L’Avventura. Vero, a blonde (like Antonioni’s muse Monica Vitti) dentist may have struck and killed a young boy with her car. After the accident, she continues driving for a few minutes while the handprints of a child appear on her window, possibly from her daughter playing in the car before and possibly as a message from a ghost. We then see her being driven to the hospital during a storm and checking into a hotel for a few days. Immediately after the accident, Vero apparently cannot remember anything, including the members of her family, and she develops a detachment from the world around her. Like L’Avventura, we never know if she actually hit the child. Even when she tries to find out, the men in her life—her husband and his cousin who she has an affair with, try to cover her tracks, despite not completely believing that she committed any crime. This blurred line of reality, in which the audience has no idea what to believe, is reflected in the final shot of many of the main characters through the thick glass doors of a restaurant. The space between the doors is still clear, but every other image we see is completely distorted, just like the concept of truth in the film.
Of all the comparisons between Martel and Antonioni, the most important is their shared ability to place the characters within the environment of the film. All three of Martel’s films have been set in the same sweltering area of Argentina where she grew up, and that swamp-like atmosphere (La Cienaga means ‘”The Swamp” in Spanish) controls every aspect of the characters’ lives. It’s so muggy that they can simply fade in and out of focus, moving back and forth between our In-focus perception of the screen and the world of the film itself. Antonioni’s characters are always in focus, but still less prominent than their surroundings. In a sense, they simply become a part of their environment, souls trapped between the promise of the future of and the false morality of the past. Martel does this in a more obvious way. In keeping the focus on one character in each scene, the others can walk in and out of the oppressive atmosphere around them, only occasionally stepping forward into full focus. Highlighting the oppressive nature of the atmosphere also connects Martel to Eastern European filmmakers like Bela Tarr and Sharunas Bartas, who use the cold industrial wasteland of post-Soviet Eastern Europe in almost the exact same way that Martel uses the stifling heat of Argentina. While The Headless Woman is not her best film in my opinion, it does represent a step forward as a filmmaker in this sense. La Cienaga focused mainly on the environment, and how it affected the characters, and The Holy Girl was mostly concerned with moving its characters in and out of focus, but here Martel does both, moving her characters around their decaying environments and randomly into and out of each other’s lives. That decaying environment is also reflected in the lives of Vero’s family. They are all cheating on each other, going insane, falling ill and having a generally unpleasant time, which seems to make perfect sense when you consider the atmosphere around them.
The shallow focus makes it clear that each character exists in his or her own universe, suffering from an Antonioni-like alienation from the universes of the other characters. Of course, they do occasionally come together, but you must always look into the out of focus background, where characters less essential to the scene will still be acting out their stories. This was more prominent in The Holy Girl, where the isolation was more absolute, but The Headless Woman uses this technique to a different effect. Almost every shot of the film is focused on Vero, and there are many instances in which she silently stands in the foreground as the supporting characters talk about their lives, even though we can’t see their unfocused faces. Because of this, we are granted a far deeper understanding of Vero’s character, and we are ultimately able to ask if she has been complacent in everything that happens after the crash. The magnificent performance from actress Maria Onetto adds layers of depth to the character because she decides to leave the question of blame for everything that happens after the accident up to the audience.
In the end, it seems like Vero has become complacent in the possible cover up by doing almost nothing. The men in her life seem to be the only ones who do anything illegal, possibly removing her files from the hospital and erasing her from the hotel’s database. The film frequently attacks the “male gaze” by keeping Vero’s head literally cut off by the frame or shadow, so only her body remains visible. There are also many highly voyeuristic over the shoulder shots of parts of Vero reflected in mirrors. The men in the film watch her and profess to love her, despite the fact that she almost never shows any trait particularly worthy of love. She’s cold, distant and uninterested in those around her, and they only serve her for physical reasons, and they could care less if they don’t see her head. It would thus seem that Martel is criticizing men for our wildly irresponsible behavior regarding women. Vero’s mostly white family is both dependent on and repelled by their darker, native servants, and thus there’s obviously a deeper criticism of Argentinean society on the whole as well, but I know little of the subject, and don’t feel fit to discuss it. After just three films, it seems clear that Lucrecia Martel will be playing a major part in the future of cinema, and as her fame grows, I can only hope that more of her films receive proper releases, but at the moment, I must encourage you to take a chance and see The Headless Woman, which really is one of the great films of the last few years, during its limited run.
The Headless Woman is not rated.
It will be playing at the Museum Of Fine Arts until May 8th, and is currently available on Netflix Instant Watch.
Written and directed by Lucrecia Martel; director of photography, Barbara Alvarez; edited by Miguel Schverdfinger; art directior, Maria Eugenia Sueiro; produced by Pedro Almodovar, Lucrecia Martel, Agustin Almodovar, Tilde Corsi, Veronica Cura, Esther Garcia, Cesare Petrillo, Enrique Pineyro, Vieri Razzini and Marianne Slot, distributed by Strand Releasing. Running time: 1 hour 27 minutes.
With: Maria Onetto (Veronica), Claudia Cantero (Josefina), Cesar Bordon (Marcos), Daniel Genoud (Juan Manuel) and Ines Efron (Candita).