On the festival circuit 'The Headless Woman' got nowhere near the attention of other highbrow international art housers of its year, such as 'Gommorah', 'A Christmas Tale', 'The Class' and 'Waltz With Bashir'. While these other films got picked up for North American distribution by the heavier hitters such as Sony Picture Classics and IFC, 'The Headless Woman' went nowhere, even topping Indiewire’s annual best 'undistributed films' list of 2008. Somehow the resonant feelings of this film persisted to become one of the most revered films of the decade, and justly so. It's a truly spellbinding beguiler..
The Headless Woman (2008) dir. Lucrecia Martel
Starring: María Onetto, Claudia Cantero, César Bordón, Daniel Genoud
By Alan Bacchus
Eventually, The Headless Woman was snagged by the smaller Strand Releasing and quickly gained a critical cult following. With art house word of mouth rising in stature, it was considered THE art house film to see 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 that the film took a while to gain traction. At a glance, it's difficult to penetrate. 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 the 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 as she travels home in her car. 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 the incident, 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 she cannot be sure. As she continues living through these foggy days and nights we encounter details and snippets of information about the accident, a missing child and 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, as she shows 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 we see her profile instead of her face. Martel barely even shoots below Vero's shoulders. Not since the Dardenne brothers exclusively shot Olivier Gourmet with one medium close-up in Le Fils has a director been so limiting with his/her 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 satisfactory answers about 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 a 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.