Monday, January 4, 2010

The Headless Woman

Focus Features' ironic title card, in which the clear words of the distribution company are surrounded by subtly blurry circles, is a cheeky match for the aesthetic of Argentinian director Lucrecia Martel's third feature film, The Headless Woman. Martel frames her protagonist, Verónica, in such a way that she's in focus wherever she is on-screen, but everything outside of her latitude is blurred: if she's in close-up, you can't make out anything behind her; when she moves to the background, nothing in front.

The Headless Woman requires concentration, to the point that I'm actually grateful I could watch it on DVD with the benefit of the ability to pause when I needed to jot down a note. Even then, I don't know how to connect a number of its oddities to the larger framework of this sparse tale. I'm told that Martel is one of the chief representatives of the "New Argentina Cinema," yet another New Wave I approach before learning anything of that country's "Old Wave" -- I saw Godard and Truffaut before Renoir and Carné, have yet to see anything by Fei Mu or pre-Fifth Generation Chinese filmmakers, moved into Iran's New Wave with Kiarostami assuming, in a despicably ethnocentric and isolationist (i.e. "Amurican") way, that he'd somehow pioneered Iran's cinema. And, as with all the other New Wave films I've stumbled across, it's so damn interesting it makes me want to explore the rest of the movement before going back further.

Before Martel shows us Verónica, she opens on a group of young brothers horsing around in the street. Verónica comes through later and hits some sort of bump and injures herself; what, we do not know, as the camera not only remains in the car for the duration of the accident but after she gets out and surveys the damage. Concussed, she suffers memory loss from the accident and tells her lover, Juan Manuel, that she thinks she killed someone.

Verónica's injury offers one explanation for Martel's curious aesthetic, the obvious inference being that the haze around the character reflect her amnesia. It might also signify that she actually died in the wreck, as The Headless Woman contains a few peripheral allusions to ghosts, such as Verónica's mother watching an old home video and exclaiming that a young girl who appears in it had died by the time the movie was shot; sound clips and out-of-focus characters flutter at the edge of the visual and sonic frames.

Of course, a film this bare (and not of the neorealist genre) has to have an arty side, and the metaphorical interpretations of Martel's aesthetic and Verónica's plight offer interesting explanations for the film. Verónica's family is middle class and somewhat incestuous: Verónica herself perpetuates this by cheating on her husband with his cousin. Both men assure her that she was just in a minor accident -- that she hit a dog -- and Juan even uses his police connections to confirm that the cops received no word of a manslaughter, but when she returns to the hospital to collect her forms she discovers that her brother already came and collected them; she later finds her car repaired. Verónica and some of her female relatives drive out to the spot where she had her accident, and they find workers draining a canal to remove a body clogging it, and they simply close the windows to escape the smell.

Ergo, the blurred look of the film might reflect the solipsism of Verónica and her effed-up clan, events always happening around them, occasionally even affecting their lives, but never noticed. The film might also be a political commentary on Argentina's sordid history, and indeed the conceit of a body clogging the drain of a canal has become almost an expectation of criminal organizations and dictatorships that dispose of dissidents quickly and quietly. One might even call it a commentary on sexism and the role of women in Argentina: the men in Verónica's world "handle things" for her and lie to her to keep her calm. When she dyes her blond hair brown, she tacitly (perhaps unknowingly) goes along with their attempts to sweep the accidental manslaughter under the rug.

The director said in interviews that The Headless Woman is about the widening class gap in Argentina and society's failure to recognize it. Note that Verónica and her middle class family (incidentally light-skinned), barely notice the darker working class members they hire to tend to their home (including two of the three boys from the start; one, we learn, didn't show up for work). It's telling that, as Verónica worries about whether she hit someone and with the lingering pain of her injury, she still engages in vacuous gossip with the ladies concerning the worry that turtles will infest the pool built behind a nearby veterinary office; when she hits the mysterious bump that causes her minor accident, she composes herself and straightens out her ruffled look before getting out of the car. Occasionally, Martel switches the object of focus to one of the poorer characters, suggesting that the economic blindness goes both ways.

It could be all of these things; more than any other film that comes to mind, The Headless Woman is less about what's in the frame than what's just outside it. It is the only film other than Tati's Playtime in which the hum of a light can dominate the soundtrack in one scene to the point of absurdity. As a depiction of a middle class family desperately trying to keep up appearances as their grotesqueness seeps out from the masks they wear, it works as a less savage version of Luis Buñuel's dynamite late period. It's not perfect, but it's easily one of the finest offerings, foreign or otherwise, released in the U.S. in 2009 and opens up yet another nation's cinema to this humble youngster. How do people like Jonathan Rosenbaum find the time?

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