Chris Knipp Writing: Movies, Politics, Art

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PostPosted: Thu Sep 18, 2008 12:36 pm 
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Personal guilt and class malaise

The Argentinian director Lucrecia Martel, whose multiple-voice films The Swamp and The Holy Child won her an international following, turns to the interior psychology of a single woman with this new feature. Whether she succeeds as well with this new one, The Headless Woman/La mujer sin cabeza, is an immediate question given predominantly negative reviews at this year’s Cannes Festival, where it was booed at a press screening. The critics nonetheless acknowledged the film’s stylistic elegance; and Salon’s O’Hehir, an American defender, wrote, "no one could argue that it's incompetent or implausible, or that it lacks thematic and artistic coherence." He insisted "people just didn't get what Martel was driving at, and that clearly bothered them." Of course it would, because despite the director’s thinking this her clearest film, it has communication problems—which do not detract from its interest, however—and material for debate: what Martel sees as a study of class, Variety describes as "a psychological thriller." It’s hard for viewers to see eye to eye, which is fine, but what’s less fortunate is the failure to engage of the low-keyed film.

The Headless Woman begins by showing a group of urchins playing riskily by a road adjoining a canal. Later a huge rainstorm comes that causes cars to be disabled and its effect becomes important later. Along comes Veronica (the excellent, well cast Maria Onetto), a well-off dentist in a nice car driving at high speed, and she hits something big, but instead of investigating she stops, obviously shaken, and drives on to town to a hospital where she’s scheduled for an X-ray. She later has a sex date with Juan Manuel (Daniel Genoud) at a hotel, but she acts dazed and disconnected, evidently deeply shaken ever since whatever happened on the road. This like Martel’s previous works (especially The Swamp) has a whole network of people and relationships, this time a little more vague because seen through Vero’s confused eyes. She leaves things and people hanging, often not even speaking and appearing to have lost her reason. Her husband Marcos (Cesar Bordon), also a dentist, offers to take on her most serious cases. She runs errands involving plants and jars for a patio. A gardener digs in the patio and finds remnants of a pool. Women friends gossip about a new swimming pool someone they know has built near a veterinary hospital and in one scene they're all there, gossiping even more.

Various friends and family members live nearby and come and go, or meet at the new pool. Juan Manuel is married to Josefina (Claudia Cantero), who is sister or cousin, perhaps, and Josefina is the mother of a plain teenager with hepatitis, Candita (Ines Efron) who has lesbian longings for Veronica. The latter has two daughters with Marcos who flit by briefly. The point may be that to Veronica none of these people really quite matter, but in the small-town Argentinian environment of these well-off people, there's no escaping them.

Finally Veronica declares to her husband and a relative that she killed someone on the road, a boy. They hasten to clear this up and say she’s just imagined it. They drive to the road and find only a dead dog—seen from Veronica’s car earlier--the camera never shows a person on the road. From now on Veronica is coherent and sure of herself again. Her hair was bleach blond, and she now dyes it black.

A statement by the director reveals she has herself occasionally had nightmares in which she fears she has killed someone; one involved a corpse whose severed head she tried to hide. She has also commented on the growing gap between rich and poor in Argentina in recent decades.

A suggested subtext here is of upper class guilt, a crime against the poor that cannot be forgiven but is also never fully acknowledged. Veronica and her family are constantly shown being cared for and ministered to by servants and employees or simply poor people who pass by looking for work, to cart things back and forth or wash an SUV—people who, however, don’t emerge as distinctive characters.

Martel’s films are good at conveying everyday confusion, families always partly in motion and partly still, lost souls. Her scenes have the specificity of random elements; they don't seem deterministic or over-calculated. She has a distinctive way of framing interiors with unconventional camera placements, and a fine sense of color. The acting here is uniformly good. There is a sense of terrible moral confusion and an anomie almost worthy of Antonioni, a mood only heightened by all the bustling about of people around the distrought and distracted central character,who seems uniquely present for being so detached. But Antonioni has been done better by Antonioni, and though it’s no crime that the thriller element fizzles, the film, despite its elegant texture, finds no clear note to end on. Finally it turns out there was a body found in the canal, but it's never clear exactly what Veronica actually hit.

©Chris Knipp. Blog:

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