The Headless Woman (2008, Lucretia Martel)

Ver(onica) hits something then continues on. She checks in and out of a hospital and a hotel, has an affair with a guy she seems to know, visits family, all in a daze, following the leads of others. She gets to work at her dental office and sits in the waiting room by mistake. Finally recovers herself enough to get a few words out, and tells her brother that she hit someone. He flies into cover-up mode, and tries to convince her it was a dog – meanwhile a boy’s body is found in a canal near the accident but the papers are saying he drowned.

The camera stays close with Ver (Maria Onetto, amazing, though beaten out by a Brazilian for best actress at Cannes), as she recovers from her shock more and more, starts acting out her life again. She is surrounded in every scene by symbols and reminders: children, cars, her own car with its dented front, Indians (it was a native whom she hit), her phone (she was reaching for it during the accident), the canal, and water – the one time she breaks down it’s when a sink won’t work. Her trauma is effectively conveyed by the filmmaking without going all Eureka-depressive.

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Martel is pointing to class differences (the killed child isn’t important except when his body inconveniences the city by blocking the canal), but isn’t going out of her way to make Ver a villain – she’s in shock, then confesses, then as she recovers and the event seems more ghostly and unsure, she’s not made out to be a horrible person. I wouldn’t say the viewer is meant to be on her side, exactly, but the filmmaker’s sympathies and intentions are hard to pin down. I have watched a bunch of acclaimed depression flicks in a row with Eureka, Songs from the Second Floor and Battle In Heaven and was afraid this would be another feel-bad mopefest, but I thought it was excellent, and it fit my weary, headachy state without losing interest.

Interesting tidbit from Martel, courtesy Salon:

Today in Argentina there’s a very particular situation because our government is in favor of clarifying things in the past, what happened during the dictatorship [of the 1970s]. But the government is completely blind about current times, what’s going on now. So I thought it was interesting to link that blindness about the past to blindness about the present time. That’s why I made some aesthetic decisions. I chose music from the ’70s, and the men have long hair, sideburns. Everything else is from today, the mobile phones and the cars. … It’s not so much to talk about what happened in the ’70s, or a conflict between that time and this time. The movie as a whole is a process of thinking. For me, that’s what cinema is about.

G. Kenny says that after the accident we see a dog behind her car (the same dog the brother finds when he takes her to investigate). I didn’t realize that because of the DVD’s limitations – assumed that the collapsed figure on the road was a kid. The movie opens with a group of kids playing, and later we learn that one of them, who works at a garden equipment store, has gone missing. So whether we see a dog or a boy behind her car, it’s never explicitly shown whether she hit a person or not. No wonder the movie gets comparisons to Cache.

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I risk over-quoting D. Kasman:

While it initially seems that The Headless Woman is after a conventional art-house expressionism, where Vero’s shock renders her mind dull and out of sync with her environment—soft-focus, tight close-ups with fuzzy, unclear backgrounds, and people melting into shadows and off-camera—this ho-hum alienation gradually reveals itself as something else. As Vero goes about her life, regaining a little bit of her mind, the moral and social threat of the potential crime—did she kill a boy and will she be caught—disperses from a threat of action—one of plot—to a threat of tone, a tactile but unidentifiable sense that an unglimpsed, terrifying world has cracked open, if only with the smallest, subtlest of cracks. Something is wrong, and it is hauntingly wrong, but we are never quite sure what. … That Vero feels guilty is clear, but as we gradually pick up out-of-focus children playing in the background of shots it never becomes apparent whether Vero is being haunted by someone’s death or by a possibility for death everywhere. When she gets back in a car, we do not think about the child she killed; all we can think of is that a child could die again. And then Martel layers, casually, suggestions of insanity and incest in Vero’s family.

Everyone talks about the sound design. Must watch with headphones next time.

Martel again, on the “fear of not having a trace…of not existing” after her hotel and hospital records have disappeared: “This is maybe the most political part of my film. I believe that hiding, not just hiding to protect somebody—it’s not so simple—also entails the idea that you are also hiding a part of yourself. That you are actually erasing a part of yourself. You are creating black holes in your life.”

E. Hynes:

With regal calm beneath a nest of dyed blonde hair (a playful nod to Vertigo), Vero carries her beauty and class with comfort and easy entitlement. She’s a dentist, wife and mother, but considering how long it takes for her co-workers and family to notice her altered state, not a particularly engaged one. … Now that she’s mentally, if only temporarily, compromised, Vero’s husband and cousin (another of Martel’s ambiguously amorous family relations) are eager to take charge and whisk the accident away, as well as whatever autonomy she knew before or since. They deny the truth of her experience but give her a cover. She’s the fainter who’s caught, coddled, and controlled; she’s kept safe, but at a cost. “Nothing happened,” they assure her, and the horror is watching Vero accept the easy, life-negating lie as truth.

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