Thursday, October 09, 2008

The 46th New York Film Festival: The Headless Woman

Lucrecia Martel's The Headless Woman (La Mujer sin cabeza), from an original screenplay by the director, marks 2008's first piece of unequivocally great filmmaking. Contrary to critical intimations of The Headless Woman's narrative opacity, Martel builds her picture entirely around female lead Veró's (María Onetto) distressed psychology following an automobile accident of her own distracted making. Driving down a rural road paralleling a concrete ravine, Veró hears and feels a sudden thud as she attends to her cell phone. A dog, which Martel introduced previously as belonging to a group of indigenous Argentine boys, lies lifeless on the road. Veró shortly stops her car, exiting into the sudden rainfall. Martel's camera remains in the vehicle, maintaining an extreme shallow focus (putting Veró outside the thin foreground focal plane, beyond a rain dropped-studded window) that dominates not only this sequence but the whole of the Argentine director's film.

Martel's decision to maintain excessively shallow depth of field in her wide screen compositions, many of which present Veró and Veró only in focus, serve to emphasize the cardinality of her psychology to the film's narrative - that is, it is purely Onetto's registration of the various shades of her character's anguish and discomposure that comprise the sharply-focused vectors of the mise-en-scène. Moreover, her addled mentation finds a corollary in the film's elliptical narration, which jumps ahead with protagonist and spectator alike uncertain as to where we find ourselves and how we got there. Of course, Martel's refusal to introduce her spaces with establishing shots promotes this sense of spatial unmooring that clearly inflicts Veró.

Ultimately, Veró acknowledges that she may have hit something more than the canine that we see in the film's opening, thus explaining the depth of her despair. However, with police confirmation that no deaths have been reported near the accident site, Veró's anxiety begins to dissipate, and as such, the film's mimetic fog begins to lift. Veró, in other words, increasingly seems capable of processing her surroundings (though in keeping with the film's spirit, further reversals will dictate additional stylistic modulations).

Yet, Martel continues to maintain the aforementioned framing strategies even when the psychological haze becomes less all-consuming. In this respect, Martel's stylistic choice takes on a second, in its case social function: to close off Veró from the surrounding lower depths. The Headless Woman's narrative, following the additional turn(s) of the plot alluded to above, will likewise articulate Argentine class relations, visible not only in the manual labor performed by the indigenous populations, but in the corrupt dealings that ultimately deny Veró her just fate. This use of metaphor, similarly richly mined in the director's strong debut feature, La Ciénaga (The Swamp, 2001), is both as precisely articulated as the lead's psychology, and also as richly-layered. The director's social critique must be seen additionally, for instance, in the film's notation of incest and the insistence of Veró's aunt that her still beautiful, though middle-aged niece has not kept herself up. Indeed Veró's extended family surely functions as a metonym for Argentina's corrupt upper class, which is by no means exonerated by the sudden pangs of liberal guilt that Veró seems to experience.

All of this is to argue for the organic rigor of Martel's latest, and most certainly greatest work. What the above largely fails to note in its emphasis in the relationship of form to content in The Headless Woman is the sheer beauty of the imagry that enacts Veró's remarkably credible psychology - unlike such lesser lights of recent art cinema such as Julian Schnabel's The Diving Bell and the Butterfly (2007), which attempts a comparatively similar visualization of non-normative cognitive states, though without a shread of Martel's film's success - while concealing the world beyond her mental and social spheres.

I would like to as always thank my wife, Lisa K. Broad, for those insights of hers that I have cribbed either knowingly or unknowingly. She certainly knows which they are.

4 comments:

Catherine Grant said...

Thanks a lot for this insightful writing on a film which seems to have befuddled most other critics. It's yet to hit the shores from which I write, but I'll certainly be watching when it does.

Michael J. Anderson said...

Thank you for your kind words, Catherine. Unfortunately, since writing the piece late last night, I noticed a couple of minor plot errors that I have since corrected. I guess being befuddled on the level of plot detail is far less egregious than missing the ideas of the film, which again seem clear enough.

Guillermo said...

Hello. I very much agree with your interpretation on the movie. But I think there is a whole perspective which non argentinians maybe cannot completely get and it deals with the relationship between Bourgeois class and the dissapearance of people during our last military government (1976 - 1983). I think Martel is telling us "We are not innocent" and at the same time setting the point that those "others" are still out of focus. Mind my english.

Michael J. Anderson said...

Dear Guillermo,

I very much appreciate your insight. My one point of caution would be to say that non-Argentine viewers could disclose the same perspective, though it would in many cases require research to match what is immediately apparent for yourself and other viewers from your country. I say this only to get out of the tautology that only viewers of the same such-and-such a nation/gender/race etc. can yield meaningful insights. This attitude, all to common in the fields of cultural studies and identity politics in the US, does great harm to scholarship.

Again, I don't accuse you of this, and indeed very much appreciate your unmistakably intelligent and useful contribution.