Wednesday, January 6, 2010

Under the influence of a reckless moment: The Headless Woman

It begins with an accident on a country road. The driver, the sole occupant of the vehicle, stops the car, but keeps her eyes forward. Her name is Verónica, or Vero, for short. She does not examine what it is she’s run over, and this moment of decision or neglect or shock and confusion extends like a prolonged exhalation—or better yet, like a scream trapped in one’s throat. The moment is maddeningly still, chilling, and transfixing. Vero composes herself and drives on.

Things start to get strange. Vero goes to a hospital to be examined. She goes to a hotel instead of going home, even though home doesn’t seem that far away. She sleeps with a man who is not her husband, whether out of habit or in a sudden fit of desire is uncertain. She takes a shower with her clothes on. Of course, we don’t know yet where her home is. We don’t know yet who her husband is. We don’t know yet that she even has a husband. Exposition has been forsaken in lieu of something tantalizingly ambiguous. We’re asked to collect clues on our own, to stay a little more alert than most movies ask us to be. If you treasure the experience of entering a mystery blind you might want to consider just watching
The Headless Woman (2008) and reading the rest of this later.

Vero’s behaviour is as compelling as her motives are nearly inscrutable, to the degree that certain sequences become comical, such the one that finds Vero sitting calmly in the waiting room of a dental clinic, as though she’s a patient and not one of the resident dentists. Vero banged her head in the collision—does she suffer from amnesia? There are more than enough noir flourishes in
The Headless Woman to suggest such a movie-movie conceit. There’s something sufficiently elliptical in this slowly unraveling tale to suggest that all that follows may be the depiction of some extended fugue state. We’re immersed in subjectivity. We’ve perhaps entered a dream, but if so it isn’t a dream of mist and echoes but one of precise and vivid realist detail. One from which one doesn’t ever entirely wake.

This is the third film from the Argentine director Lucrecia Martel, who had something of an art house hit with
The Holy Girl (04), which is warmer than this latest film and actually a sort of comedy. Martel’s uncompromising sense of open-endedness and refusal to orient audiences either narratively or morally is tempered by her humour, her singular eye for fascinatingly peculiar bits of human interaction, and her immaculate, almost classical craftsmanship—a combination that’s allowed her to make her last two films under the auspices of the Almodóvar brothers, who are credited as co-producers. Although it played in very few theatres in Canada and the US, The Headless Woman is now available on DVD from Stand Releasing, which means that we can watch and re-watch it and piece together the shards of Vero’s posttraumatic daze. Once you do it’s surprising how coherent Martel’s narrative actually is—there isn’t a minute of this movie that’s not integral of the whole.

Yet the film’s brilliance, what makes you want to bother to seek out this coherence in the first place, is that no matter how much plot you glean certain shadows linger, expanding beyond the immediate story until it spreads into the sociological. Vero’s world is one where race and class-based inequities are less discreet than ours, and the meaning of her crime in this context can hardly be missed. When Vero gradually begins to recall or accept what’s transpired and attempts to resolve the situation however she can, the film’s creepier implications are revealed. She needn’t worry about her hit and run being discovered because there are others of her same social standing who, like friendly little elves, are cleaning up her mess while she recovers.

As remarkable as Martel’s writing and direction is, The Headless Woman would still be only half a movie were it not for the central performance of María Onetto. With her bottle-blonde hair—which she eventually changes, like a guilty heroine from Hitchcock—her heavy lidded eyes, and her sedate smile that could speak to some inner mischief as easily as serenity, Onetto reminds me most of some tranquilized version of Gena Rowlands in A Woman Under the Influence (74). Neither ingratiating nor alienating, Onetto doesn’t judge Vero but instead fully embodies her to the point where, against all odds, we identify with her. As with many a noir protagonist, we know she’s done something at least a little awful, even if we’re unsure of the gravity of the consequences of her actions—yet we can’t take our eyes off of her. And neither can Martel, who frames Onetto in ways that are endlessly curious, paying special attention to her neck and ears. Martel and Onetto insist on our intimacy if we’re to stick with the film, until by the end we too feel a little headless, totally intrigued, entertained, creeped out, and probably wondering what these women will do next.

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