Above: Vero (María Onetto) in one of the film's many emblematic, ghostly uses of foreground and background in its compositions.
Argentinian director Lucrecia Martel (The Holy Girl, La Ciénaga) curls back into cinema with her newest film, The Headless Woman, refining her utterly precise sense of visual and aural exploration of psychology while keeping the scale of her film smaller than anything else she has done.
If the eerie sense of off-screen space and subtle, active sound design in The Holy Girl suggested a director who could make a truly disturbing horror picture, Martel goes halfway to embrace a ghost story. When middle-aged Vero (María Onetto) reaches for her cell phone while driving home from the outskirts of her town one day and hits, well, something, her head, one might say, takes a critical blow. What she hit and whether or not it died is left in the air, and indeed what Martel does is build a film where everything is left hanging in the air, full of opaque menace and vague possibilities.
While it initially seems that The Headless Woman is after a conventional art-house expressionism, where Vero's shock renders her mind dull and out of sync with her environment—soft-focus, tight close-ups with fuzzy, unclear backgrounds, and people melting into shadows and off-camera—this ho-hum alienation gradually reveals itself as something else. As Vero goes about her life, regaining a little bit of her mind, the moral and social threat of the potential crime—did she kill a boy and will she be caught—disperses from a threat of action—one of plot—to a threat of tone, a tactile but unidentifiable sense that an unglimpsed, terrifying world has cracked open, if only with the smallest, subtlest of cracks. Something is wrong, and it is hauntingly wrong, but we are never quite sure what. Nothing could so naturally fit a filmmaker whose talents include, rarely enough, the incredibly atmospheric but nevertheless abstract impact of heightened, ambiguously motivated sound design, echoing or stabbing sharply but whose source or point is never concrete. This emphasis on sound is emblematic of the way The Headless Woman works, casting a dangerous pall, but one that we cannot see, and indeed are unsure if it even exists, and if so, why.
That Vero feels guilty is clear, but as we gradually pick up out-of-focus children playing in the background of shots it never becomes apparent whether Vero is being haunted by someone's death or by a possibility for death everywhere. When she gets back in a car, we do not think about the child she killed; all we can think of is that a child could die again. And then Martel layers, casually, suggestions of insanity and incest in Vero's family. Most curious of all, especially considering the class issues of La Ciénaga, is the fact that the potential victim, the visits to the countryside, and the omnipresent servants in Vero's family life are all clearly of a darker-skinned lower class than the film's whiter, bourgeois, upper-class protagonist. The cumulative effect of these brief, unexplained moments of focus in a film often quite literally so out of focus pushes The Headless Woman even further into ghost story of ambiguous, multi-directional subtlety. The haunting actually predates the event that supposedly springs forth the ghosts; the film literally opens with the rural children scampering across the landscape, an idyll interrupted by the chatter of the rich women down the road, and it is only after the accident that Vero begins to cross over into a ghost world that she had always lived in, blindly.