News / Film

The Headless Woman

Driving on a desolate road for a nice mid-day romp with a forbidden love seems pretty exciting, and quite a trip. Just other day, I was looking at this nice looking young lady on the 1 train. We locked eyes, her lips pouted and we embarked on a night of excitement and self-discovery. At least, that’s what my defense attorney is telling me to say at my next hearing.

In all seriousness, this ties (barely and quite crudely) into The Headless Woman. Are we really who we think we are, or is the world a manifestation of our willful self-delusion? Fear not, this is not a philosophical treatise in the vein of Rousseau or Descartes. This is a fundamental element of Lucrecia Martel’s La Mujer Sin Cabeza. Got it? Good; now watch as you realize what is happening and still be as disoriented as Veronica (Maria Onetto) is in this film.

The film builds around a simple idea. Veronica, the affluent dentist in a small town is anxious to meet her secret lover when all of a sudden, her car hits something. The question is, what was it? A small boy, a dog? This simple accident creates a crisis for Veronica as well as the viewer as we are both left uncomfortable and confused at what is happening before our very own eyes.

Only the third feature by the lauded Argentinean director, The Headless Woman hammers away at class and sexism, subjects previously touched upon in her previous works, La Cienaga (2001) and The Holy Girl (2004). Given the unconventional nature of The Headless Woman, it is no surprise that Martel has used her time at an experimental film school to weave a narrative that is based on feeling and seeing.

The character’s images are blurred, and are almost never given full body shots save for Veronica, to the point of making the viewer uncomfortable. There is a palpable sense of entrapment in Veronica’s life , whether its as a befuddled mother or the wife of a loving, if a bit distant, husband. In this case, the crash has made her aware of the fact that her life is essentially empty, even as the frames are continuously packed with images that throw off several messages at once.

Class, long a staple of Latin American cinema is in full view here as mestizos are viewed as expendable help, always waiting on their employers. While this is not the main topic of the film, it permeates all around, with scenes involving Veronica’s servants to even the presumed identity of the supposed hit-and-run incident.

However, this is still about Veronica (Maria Onetto). From her lover’s assurances that she has become hysterical to her outings with her gal pals, this is a woman who leads a cloistered existence and is the embodiment of an ideal, middle class woman. She is preoccupied with her looks as she spends time with her friends on meaningless trips. To be sure, this type of critique has been done before, but Martel’s direction makes it all a hazy mess that sinks in gradually instead of making a pointed jab. Maria Onetto’s sleepwalk-like presence helps as well.

This world of boring trips to her kid’s soccer games is contrast with her increasing doubt and guilt. Family scenes are almost always framed in sunlight or bright lighting and Veroncia’s scenes with her lover or friends and husband are dark and forbiding. Her carefully built facade begins to crack under the strain of her own guilt. In this case, this has nothing to do with her infidelity, but all about what happened on that stretch of road. Even then, the case can be made that she has no concern over the unfortunate creature or person supposedly killed by her. In the end, Veronica’s world has been ignoring her problems. She repays them by focusing on her self.

Does that signal a transformation? No. Martel does not take the easy route of transforming Veronica into something else. Her accident has left her jarred, yes, but when the time comes to see if that accident really did happen, if what she has seen is real, the answer is nothing you expect. The result, a nice trip into a hazy world where truth is relative and quite beautiful at the same time.