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Dread Desert, Part I: "The Headless Woman" (Martel, Argentina)

Imagine that we are sitting in an ordinary room. Suddenly we are told that there is a corpse behind a door. In an instant the room we are sitting in is completely altered; everything in it has taken on another look; the light, the atmosphere have changed, though they are physically the same. This is because we have changed and the objects are as we conceive them."  -Carl Th. Dreyer

On the one hand, Lucrecia Martel’s The Headless Woman is the everyday portrait of a woman living her life, watching wedding videos, going to the pool, meeting a lover, driving her young niece around, washing her hands, picking up flowers, and so on. On the other, it’s a horror-noir straddling two rival strands of the genres: the nice anti-hero with the dark secret buried in the past that threatens to be unearthed (Out of the Past; so many of Hitchcock’s double entendres that the speaker means one way, and the guilty hears another); and, in a more supernatural vein, the paranoid anti-hero perceiving visions and intimations nobody else believes in, yet which will vindicate her when it’s too late (Invasion of the Body Snatchers; The Exorcist; any number of Twilight Zone episodes, etc.). In this year’s godawfully criminal Bullet in the Head, Jaime Rosales attempts his own quotidian thriller by following up random everyday acts with random scenes of violence, as if the two are intertwined. Martel makes them so.

Here, nearly every everyday act becomes an echo of non-hero Vero’s (María Onetta) possible running-over of a boy, since disappeared without a trace, at the film’s start. Vero sees only a dead dog in her rearview mirror as she drives off, and so dead and dying animals begin appearing (and sounding off) in unlikely, though not inexplicable, locations. Her kitchen counter, the pool. The boy may have climbed into the canals, and so water seems to leak into every scene, not unjustifiably, heard muddying in the background; the only place Vero can escape from the world to, in fact, is her shower, as presences from gardeners to bikers continue to swirl around her home and car, as in a Kafka novel where everyone invades the hero’s home, knows his personal secrets, and doesn’t give a damn to help him, since he is, after all, an alien to their world. The boy would have been dark-skinned and poor, and so Vero, white and wealthy, is surrounded by servants whom she’s certainly never considered, and who may be relatives and who may be disgruntled if they were to discover that their myopic employer had carelessly abused a dark-skinned boy and gone on living her life unpunished. Or may be suppressing their grief for the sake of class appearances.

This is all our own projection, of course—our imagining of Vero’s imaginings. The Headless Woman has enough ellipses—viewer head-room—to allow interpretations banal to insane. Like most of the disconcerting details of the movie, for example, the fact that Vero enters her shower with her clothes on can be explained somewhat logically (she is trying to wash her lover’s scent off her clothes, as one pundit suggested), or somewhat figuratively (just as she hides in the bathroom, locks the door, and jumps in the shower to escape her boyfriend, she is scared of revealing herself, of becoming vulnerable à la Psycho, and so the clothes stay on). Similarly, Vero’s records disappear from the hospital, leading to paranoia before a family member assures he wanted to take them out (leading to a bit more paranoia). Or hellish lighting sparks from a hidden room, and then a welder emerges. The film is a mystery not only in premise—did she or didn’t she?—but at every step—why did she?—with the explanations only occasional, and not always complete. Just as Vero’s “normal” life seems to become unconscionably strange as every element insinuates her guilt, Martel severs effect from cause, or serves effect before cause, to propose another question: whether what we see is mysterious because we don’t know why it’s happening, or whether it’s more mysterious when we do. When, for example, Vero’s niece tries to make out with her, the confirmed explanation is that she’s a lesbian. It doesn’t make the scene any less weird; it also could be out of Kafka. Vero, wordless, lip curled up, and forever gazing around, is more imploded than introspective, a corpse living her life. That is, she’s the passive recipient of the world around her, in the form of servants and lovers both. The first put on her clothes; the latter take them off. Like a Kafka character, again, she wanders around, finds herself guilty of things beyond her control, finds herself making love, and, without a moment of privacy, never finds herself at all.

But the joke of the class critique here is that social hierarchies make people into corpses. The servants have to lift Vero’s arms to put on her jacket, so traumatized does Vero seem, yet the servants are, of course, unable to express any concern that she’s acting strangely (or perhaps, per Kafka once again, they simply aren’t concerned), while Vero seems unable to express any sign that she knows they’re there. That, in the wake of catastrophe, life must continue normally, that interactions are formalized by class and business customs, only reveals how impersonal the life of the ever-preoccupied—or unoccupied—Vero is, and has been. She barely exists. The Headless Woman’s inescapable sense of contamination isn’t far from Red Desert’s, and like Antonioni, Martel has made a movie in which everything is visually and structurally clouded, in which some people suddenly vanish, and others wish they could. Eventually, it turns out Vero is struggling to disappear without a trace from her own life, as she changes hair color and checks to see if her records have disappeared—she’s the opposite of Kafka’s insolent heroes, guilty mostly for affirming they exist. As if she’s succeeded from the start, nobody notices she’s acting weirdly, perhaps because everyone in the film acts weirdly (“I would have preferred modernity,” an aunt moans—bemoans—in her sleep). Yet she’s unavoidably stuck in habit, performing her tasks, while, as Dreyer would affirm, banal tasks take on sinister glows with the possibility of a corpse haunting the background and wings.

Which is where everything happens in The Headless Woman. Martel’s style, Bresson-via-late-Godard, is to station her camera on a stable, centered pivot point around which the rest of the world swirls and is barely glimpsed. Most of what happens happens in Martel’s diffuse, over-attuned sound design, echoings replete with more echoes of Vero’s crime: kids playing, ambulance sirens, cell phone chiming, and always water pouring, less cleansing than bringing the dirt to the surface. Important characters and objects are usually immediately off-screen, left to be imagined, and when they come on, they pass through or hover at the edges, oblivious to the framing: limbs dangle in and out at the sides, people walk through with their heads, appropriately, lopped off if they’re in the foreground. If they’re in the background, they’re probably out of focus; this is a world that very much can’t be totally grasped or held onto, and the sense that we just get glimpses of the surrounding area deepens as the background characters joke around and make unaccountable references to their love lives. More mysteries. Yet to decode the fuzzy focus as shorthand for myopia and unclear thinking (which, in part, it is, and more importantly, feels like) isn’t enough, since the in-focus pivot point isn’t always Vero. Sometimes, it’s she who passes in the background, threatening, as always, to vanish. The texture is a sort of sandy blue, like a twilight out of which scenes emerge. Or might. And as Martel cuts within scenes to and from shots that have no common area between them, the impression increases both of people left behind to do what—or whatever—they might, and of this outside universe that continues simultaneous with Vero, but acting on its own.

Like a dream—or Eyes Wide Shut, another maudit masterpiece—The Headless Woman presents a lost protagonist (lost in thought, lost in her own surroundings) unable to gain any control over the world spinning around her, even while it constantly evokes her own deepest fears that may or may not be justifiable. Like a dream, it fragments everyday life and reconfigures it so that the pieces don’t quite fit, but for that, become defamiliarized, so that everyday gestures suddenly seem new and full of possible, unconfirmed meaning; though the meaning’s always terror. And most importantly, like a dream, it’s all completely believable. On par with Antonioni, or Dreyer, or Hitchcock—and The Headless Woman is well within their leagues—Martel works from real life and abstracts the components she needs to give the natural supernatural connotations. (Why is the clinking of the hotel keys in the penultimate scene so ghostly—perhaps because a gust passes continuously just as Vero disappears?) In interviews, Martel’s cited Freud (though she’s clearly uncomfortable with his over-deterministic schemas) and always her own childhood, and even has suggested the entire film is shot from the perspective of a ten-year old kid. As a child remains more sensitive to the world yet less able to differentiate its parts, the precise-yet-hazy sounds and visions of The Headless Woman suggest what all those other great directors suggested: the world discovered anew, appareled in the celestial light of hell. Take it as a mood piece. The mood is dread. It’s as close as anything I’ve seen to my own nightmares, and I think it’s a work of genius.

***

Coverage of The Headless Woman continues in our interview with writer/director Lucrecia Martel here.

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