While Verónica, a white, provincial middle-class dentist, is driving along a rural road, she hits something or someone, a dog or a dark-skinned child – neither she nor the viewer can be sure – but doesn’t stop to find out what it is. In the days following the accident, she is confused and emotionally disconnected from the people and events in her life. She becomes obsessed with the possibility that she may have killed someone. Although the police confirm that there were no accidents reported in the area, a drowned child is found in a roadside canal. Her middle-class family conceals any evidence of her possible guilt and everything returns to normal.
Lucrecia Martel is one of the key contributors to the rebirth of independent Argentine cinema known as the Nuevo Cine Argentino, first with the 1995 short Rey muerto, then the 2001 opera prima La ciénaga (The Swamp), and the 2004 La niña santa (The Holy Girl).1 Not surprisingly, like the director’s previous pieces, La mujer sin cabeza (2008, distributed in the United States as The Headless Woman) is located in Salta, Martel’s home province in the north of Argentina. There are also stylistic and thematic affinities with her previous features, primarily in the representation of class and gender tensions of bourgeois families, the force fields of desire that ignore all norms, and the formal virtuosity that foregrounds the intrusive presence of the unknown over the known. But The Headless Woman is perhaps the most disconcerting of Martel’s films because perception – and its distortions – are at the centre of the story. The film is subjectively narrated to the extent that the information given is restricted to that known to the protagonist, a woman who had an accident and is in a state of shock.
The plot of the film is simple. A mobile phone sounds in the middle of a deserted provincial road. The driver, Verónica or Vero, a bourgeois blonde (María Onetto), tries to find the vibrating object within her bag, a slightly careless search, and then a brutal crash. An anonymous corpse lies on the road. Apparently it is a dog but there will never be enough hints to know. The power of this decisive moment is strengthened by the suspense built up by the film’s opening sequence: shot predominantly in shallow focus extreme close-ups, the crosscutting between a group of young boys (dark-skinned and poor) playing on the side of the road with their dog and Vero nearby gossiping with friends (light-skinned and privileged), and later driving in a distracted state, makes us feel the impending accident. When it happens, the blonde woman trembles. She is in state of shock. Eventually she puts on her sunglasses and leaves the scene. After a while she stops at another location. Martel holds an extended shot as a powerful rainstorm arrives. Visibly disoriented, Vero gets out of the car and walks in circles under the rain. The camera has not moved and her head is cut off because of the framing. Only then do we get the film’s opening titles: The Headless Woman. After the accident, Vero has ‘lost her head’.
As in the opening sequence, the entire film’s narrative is designed for the viewers to explore an individual subjectivity. This immersion in the mind of the character dictates the filmmaker’s stylistic decisions. While we get to scrutinise the protagonist from the outside, Martel withholds point of view shots from her perspective and transmits the disoriented gaze of Vero through experimentation with framing, shallow focus, and off-screen spaces.
More than in previous films, in The Headless Woman sensorial uncertainty is a mode of narrative organisation. Following the accident, Vero lapses into a state of shock, nearly unable to talk and moving like a sleepwalker unaware of her surroundings. During the health check-up at the hospital she is not capable of remembering her name or phone number. The next day, when a cab drives her to her workplace, a dental surgery office, she proceeds to sit in the waiting room, flicking through a magazine instead of taking care of her patients’ dental needs.
Vero’s enigmatic breakdown implies emotional detachment as well. The sense of disconnection in relation to family bonds – so characteristic of Martel’s films – is embodied by this blonde creature who wanders through her routines with an odd smile. Tensions within her family, including her affair with a cousin, an aunt’s growing dementia, and a niece’s crush on her, became merely background noise. After the accident, former familiar ties have become senseless. In many scenes she struggles to recognise her relatives among the confusing faces that pass in front of her eyes and this atmosphere of alienation is reinforced through shots that use shallow focus and leave her head outside the frame.
Shallow focus and off-screen spaces play a crucial role not only in the narrative, but also on the mise en scène. Martel uses a widescreen image, often divided by precise framing and a shallow focus to leave parts of the image illegible, and fleshed out by disconcerting sounds, often unidentifiable, that come from illegible or off-screen spaces. These sound-images invite the viewer to participate in Vero’s disorientation. As in previous Martel films, in The Headless Woman there is the constant appearance of presences, of which, as aunt Lala says from her bed, it is ‘better not to talk’ but to ‘forget about’. While Vero tries to forget about the accident, strange facts keep unfolding off screen: there is something weird buried in her garden and dead animals have drowned in the new swimming pool of the village. There is another marginal area from which Vero cannot escape: little poor children, like the one she might have killed, come knocking on the door asking for food, but lighting and shallow focus confines them to the less visible space of the screen.
When it is clear that everything is beyond her control, Vero confesses to her husband that she killed someone on the road. That night they return to the highway, the crime scene, and he convinces her that she has only hit a dog. Later, when a boy’s body is found in the canal, Vero’s relatives seem determined to ‘protect’ her by hiding the truth and shielding her from the consequences of her actions. They erase all traces of the accident: the car is repaired; her X-rays are removed from the hospital, the records of her stay at a hotel, post-accident, mysteriously disappear.
From this point on we can witness Vero’s process of re-apprehending the world. After her male relatives take care of the situation, she goes back to work and dyes her hair dark. This action – the only action she has the ability to decide for herself – can be interpreted as an attempt to be less visible, in a situation that requires keeping a low profile, but simultaneously changing her hair colour is a way to ‘move on’. And the closing sequence of the film suggests that she is successful at it. Vero joins a bourgeois party at the hotel where she stayed the night of the accident. The camera stays behind a glass door and captures Vero as she retreats into the comfort of family and friends suggesting that in this provincial wealthy society nothing has happened.
In The Headless Woman, Lucrecia Martel is primarily interested in making us inhabit her character’s sealed world. The close framing and shallow focus, the absence of expository dialogue, all deprive the viewer of context, and together mimic the situation of a dazed Verónica. But the film is a rich character study that explores the personal repercussions of an immoral act. While Verónica’s mental anguish is difficult to witness, what is especially upsetting about The Headless Woman are the social mechanisms of denial and forgetting at play.
Vero and her bourgeois family conceal evidence of her possible guilt in what could be a hit-and-run accident. Taking us inside the psyche of a character for whom trauma and denial are two sides of the same coin, The Headless Woman puts ethics at its centre. In interviews Lucrecia Martel has described the film as a reference to the class disparity between Argentina’s middle and lower class.2 The use of shallow focus and lighting in the scenes of blonde and light-skinned Vero interacting with darker skinned servants and children suggest that they are mostly invisible to her. The film explores both class and gender differences, but it also heightens the impact of these disparities by aligning them with Argentina’s public memory. The minimalist, intimate style of most of Lucrecia Martel’s films can appear resistant to political analyses, but, in the way Vero’s family promotes a culture of forgetting, The Headless Woman can be read as a political parable, where Vero’s denial of guilt may be symbolic of the former dictatorial regime’s silence about ‘the disappeared’. 3 In this way, interpreting the movie as mediation on Argentina’s historical memory, The Headless Woman suggests an ethical key to future possibilities.
Irene Depetris Chauvin
1. It is important to place Martel’s work in the context of the New Argentine Cinema, alongside filmmakers such as Martín Rejtman, Adrián Caetano, Pablo Trapero and Lisandro Alonso. The fervour of filmmaking that renewed Argentine cinema was less a movement than a generational shift facilitated by a boom of new film schools, the passing of the ‘Cinema law’, as well as the rebirth of film journals. The trait that binds the directors of New Argentine Cinema into this ‘movement’ is neither a shared aesthetic nor pedagogical program, but rather a commitment to break away from a certain style of Argentine cinema of the previous decade that they regarded as clichéd (see Aguilar 2008: 7–17).
2. In an interview with Amy Taubin, Lucrecia Martel said: ‘In Argentina, my country, I see people that still carry the weight of the really bad stuff that they did not denounce back when it happened under the dictatorship. A lot of people decided they didn’t want to see, they didn’t want to know what was happening. And now the same process is occurring, but it’s in relation to poverty. A lot of people pretend they do not see that a huge part of the country is becoming poorer and poorer and is undergoing great suffering. The same mechanism that we used in the past to ignore the suffering of others is still very present today. That’s why in the film, I use music from the Seventies at the same time that people use mobile phones and drive contemporary cars. What I wanted to stress with these elements is that the same mechanism that started back then is continuing. So I use anachronisms to create that continuity’ (Lucrecia Martel, ‘Shadow of a Doubt: Lucrecia Martel Interviewed by Amy Taubin’, filmcomment.com, 2008, Internet).
3. According to Cecilia Sosa, by presenting the existentialist drama of an upper-class woman involved in a seemingly minor car accident, the film manages to stage a counter-narrative of the traumatic past that affected the whole of society beyond obvious sites of suffering. In Martel’s film each viewer becomes a survivor and a witness and is thereby subtlely compelled to respond. See Cecilia Sosa, ‘A Counter-Narrative of Argentine Mourning’. Theory, Culture and Society, Vol. 26, 2009, pp. 7–8.
Cast and Crew:
[Country: Argentina, Spain, Italy, France. Production Company: Aquafilms, El Deseo S.A., R&C Produzioni, Slot Machine, Teodora Film. Director and Screenwriter: Lucrecia Martel. Producer: Pedro Almodóvar. Executive Producer: Verónica Cura. Cinematographer: Bárbara Álvarez. Art Director: María Eugenia Sueiro. Editor: Miguel Schverdfinger. Sound Director: Guido Beremblun. Cast: María Onetto (Verónica), Claudia Cantero (Josefina), César Bordón (Marcos), Daniel Genoud (Juan Manuel), Guillermo Arengo (Marcelo), Inés Efrón (Candita, Vero’s niece), Alicia María Vaner (Aunt Lala).]
Gonzalo Aguilar, Other Worlds: New Argentine Cinema, New York, Palgrave Macmillan, 2008.
Jens Andermann, ‘Accidents and Miracles: Film and the Experience of History’, in New Argentine Cinema, London: I.B. Tauris, 2012, pp. 155–75.
Oscar Jubis, The Films of Lucrecia Martel: The Salta Trilogy, Saarbrücken, Germany: VDM Verlag, Dr. Müller Aktiengesellschaft & Co, 2010.
Joanna Page, ‘The Politics of Private Space’, in Crisis and Capitalism in Contemporary Argentine Cinemam, Durham, NC, Duke University Press, 2009, pp. 180–95.
The Routledge Encyclopedia of Films, Edited by Sarah Barrow, Sabine Haenni and John White, first published in 2015.