THE HEADLESS WOMAN (Lucrecia Martel, 2008)

Perhaps the most irritating movie ever made, with the possible exception of David Lean’s Summertime (1955), La mujer sin cabeza comes from Argentina, where it is set, France, Italy and Spain. Through her basket case protagonist, affluent dentist Verónica, writer-director Lucrecia Martel surveys a class-bound society that clings to meticulously detailed activity as a quietly desperate way of keeping itself from disappearing entirely, which threatens to leave the bourgeoisie with nothing or no one to lord over. Politically, the film is admirable. Moreover, some of its imagery is beautifully and sensitively devised; but much more of it is contrived and mannered, and the whole thing is excrutiatingly slow. And the narrative, such as it is, elects to keep us in the dark about the central—the centrifugal—event in the plot.
     Just what happened on the slick, rain-deluged road near the canal when Verónica, behind the wheel of her car, was distracted by the ringing of her cell phone, which momentarily diverted her eyes from the road as she reached to answer it? We have seen three boys and a dog playing in the area. The sudden thump that causes injury to Verónica’s head: was it a dog or a boy, or someone or something else, that the car hit and ran over? Preferring not to know, Verónica drives off; as always (such as with her extramarital affair), she chooses guilt over responsibility. When down the road she finally stops the car and gets out, the framing decapitates her. It is then that the title appears, retroactively forcing visual irony into the previous image. Regrettably, Martel cannot resist framing subsequent shots so that Verónica continues losing her head.
     Many shots, however, are elegant; one in particular, with Verónica in the far left foreground against an expanse of interior background, encapsulates the influence of Antonioni that is prevalent throughout. Indeed, Martel relies on Antonioni’s L’avventura (1960) and The Passenger (1975), two masterpieces, as well as Hitchcock’s Vertigo (1958), for her film’s elusiveness and sense of mystery. Nearly all of the film unfolds subjectively, much of it in modified point-of-view shots through automobile windows, as Verónica plays detective by trying to discover what happened on that fateful day when her complacency was thunderstruck and she started losing her mind. However, the only thing she does find out is that her loyal, pampering spouse has covered up whatever needed covering up—which, although odious in itself, compounds the odiousness of Verónica’s cheating on him (and with a member of his own family!).
     Indeed, much of the film is about “covering up” one thing or another, whether it be trivial cosmetic matters, as in the case of Verónica’s gray hair, or the old pool or whatever it is underneath the grounds, making it impossible for the gardener to grow anything there, causing him to cover the area with huge potted plants: a creaking attempt by Martel to fuse her film’s thematic elements, bourgeois complacency and class divide. We have here the help, in this case the gardener, symbolically “covering up” for employer Verónica.
     I found Martel’s film to be forced and strenuously (though disquietingly) interior, but it won critics’ prizes at Rio and Lima.


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