The Headless Woman (2008) dir. Lucrecia Martel
Starring: María Onetto, Claudia Cantero, César Bordón, Daniel Genoud
By Alan Bacchus
Lucrecia Martel’s The Headless Woman, premiered at Cannes in Official Competition to those inexplicable boos, which doesn't necessarily mean they disliked the film, but the critical reception was varied and the film was left empty handed of any awards. On the festival circuit scene it got nowhere near the attention of other high brow international art housers such as Gommorah, A Christmas Tale, The Class, Waltz With Bashir etc. While these other films got picked up for US and North American distribution by the heavier hitters such as Sony Picture Classics, IFC etc, The Headless Woman went nowhere, even topping Indiewire’s annual best ‘undistributed films list' of 2008.
Eventually it was snagged by the smaller Strand Releasing and quickly gained a critical cult following, with art house word of mouth rising in stature, attaining a place as THE art house film to see of that year, even securing a spot at #25 on The Toronto International Film Festival’s respected ‘alternative’ Decade Best of List.
It's no surprise the film took a while to gain traction. At a glance, it's inpenetrable. Few films have shown greater devotion to their ‘point of view’. There’s only a whiff of a story in The Headless Woman and little or no plot, yet it’s a remarkable attempt at execution of a completely unique style of storytelling.
The point of view in question belongs to Veronica (or Vero for short), a middle aged upper class Argentinean woman played brilliantly by María Onetto, whom we meet on the road in her car travelling home. As Martel does throughout the entire film, her camera is lasered in on Vero’s profile, at the wheel when she hits something on the road. She’s shaken and angry, and it isn’t until she drives away from the scene that we see in the distance a dead dog on the road. Yet through the hours and days after Vero is still shaken to the core as we watch her wander through the daily movements of her life in a daze, aloof, barely acknowledging her friends and family.
So what’s eating Vero?
Only midway through the film does Vero confess to her husband that she thinks she may have hit a child, but cannot be sure. As Vero continues these moving through these foggy days and nights we encounter details and snippets of information of the accident, a missing child, a blocked canal due to a carcass stopping the water flow, details which may or may not add up to any closure of Vero’s guilt-ridden angst.
When other characters talk, Martel is always on Vero’s face, observing her reactions. If the description of this film couldn’t get more unappealing, Vero barely has any reaction to the information and events after the accident. Martel is singular in her direction – show the internalized anguish and psychological torment of Vero at all times.
Martel is so vigilant with her point of view, her camera never leaves Maria Onetta’s head – I say ‘head’ instead of 'face', because half the time, it’s the back of her head in focus, or her profile we see instead of her face. Martel barely even shoots below her shoulders. Not since The Dardennes Bros exclusive shot Olivier Gourmet in Le Fils with one medium-close up has a director been so limiting with their camera. But as seen through Martel’s longish lens (which compresses the visual space in perspective ), Onetta is beautified, producing gorgeous and wholly cinematic compositions.
We never really get a satisfactory answers to the mysteries in the film, and the last shot which features the film’s only moment of music suggests an optimism that Vero will emerge from her haze. Or maybe not?
The open endedness shouldn’t come as any surprise considering the intellectual melancholy of Martel’s tone. That doesn’t mean it’s any less satisfying. Hell, I love closure, and hated the The White Ribbon for not providing any but The Headless Woman is a different film and we never feel Martel needed to solve its mystery in order to satisfy us (or at least me), thus earning her the right to leave us hanging.