15 December 2009

The Headless Woman

Written & Directed by: Lucrecia Martel
Full credits at IMDb

How you receive Martel’s enigmatic The Headless Woman (La Mujer Sin Cabeza) will depend in large part on your mood: is it an arthouse soporific or a meticulous masterpiece of mise-en-scene and ambiguity? I watched half the film in a torpor and felt the former, then finished it off well rested and came around to the latter. The film requires a vigorous attentiveness—it’s best seen in a dark theater by a properly caffeinated viewer—but pays off for those willing to put in the work.

In a tremendous but subtle performance, María Onetto stars as Vero, a bourgeois Spaniard who, while driving on the eve of a storm and reaching for a cellphone, hits something with her car. Was it a dog? Or one of those innocent boys on whose antics the film opens? Vero doesn’t get out of her car to find out, and spends the rest of the movie quietly unraveling amid jarring, memory-piquing parallels. (It would almost be reminiscent of Carnival of Souls if it didn’t evoke Antonioni so strongly.) As Vero’s husband begins an apparent cover-up, Martel suggests an allegory about class dynamics that’s hard to parse—“this storm has hurt thousands of people,” one character says. “It’s not just unfortunate. It’s shameful”—but even on its most basic terms, as a portrait of mushrooming guilt, it’s a wonder.

Martel, filming in long takes, alternates between keeping the camera exhaustingly close on her protagonista and carefully composing frames that marginalize Vero, though she always seems to dominate the frame, even when just wearily smiling, awkwardly shuffling or furrowing her brow from its corners. The camera is tightly focused on her even when it seems to be ignoring her, just as Vero obsesses over her (possible) vehicular manslaughter, even when she appears apathetic. Grade: A-

Watch the trailer:

No comments: