Is there one person in our family who has died sane?

– (Tía Lala) María Vaner, The Headless Woman

As a “poster girl” for what is wishfully called the New Argentine Cinema, Lucrecia Martel has built a career by lacing her wilfully obscure narratives with symbols that are just too loud and portentous for us to miss. In all three of her features – La Ciénaga/The Swamp (2001), La Niña Santa/The Holy Girl (2004) and La Mujer sin Cabeza/The Headless Woman (2008) – the truth about the characters and the secrets that bind them together seems to hover, tantalisingly, just outside the camera’s view. We never feel sure of who or what we’re watching… or whether it’s important or not. Yet in each film, an easy-to-read symbolic device (a stagnant swimming pool, a gush of rain from the heavens) is there to reassure us sceptics that something vastly meaningful is afoot.

It’s not a style of filmmaking that works for everyone. Writing on The Headless Woman after its Cannes premiere, Nick James lamented how “a resounding aesthetic triumph […] was roundly booed at the end of the press screening”. (1) Clearly, I’m not the only viewer who reacts badly to Martel’s blend of narrative obscurity and all-too-transparent symbolism. Yet as the heir apparent to a rich legacy of Latin American cinema (one that has been grossly neglected in English-speaking countries) Martel takes on a significance that goes far beyond her actual talent. There’s no way you can ignore her, although you may be tempted to try.

The basic premise of The Headless Woman is nothing new. A middle-class Argentine lady, Verónica (María Onetto, of whose mesmerising performance there is no doubt), is driving home through a parched rural landscape. Distracted when her mobile rings, she takes her eye off the road and runs over… well, through the grimy window of her car, it looks like a dog. (Martel, it seems, has a passion for panes of glass – the more smudged and distorting the better.) Yet once she has driven away and got over a slight concussion, she starts to suspect it was a child. Days pass and a local boy is missing. His corpse turns up in a river, presumed drowned. Driven to admit her guilt, Verónica is unable even to establish it as a fact. Closing ranks, her friends and family conspire to erase a crime that may or may not have occurred.

As a metaphor for bourgeois guilt (notably, for complicity in 50 years of on-and-off military dictatorship) road accidents have a long pedigree in Spanish-language cinema. The first and most famous example, Juan Antonio Bardem’s Muerte de un Ciclista (Death of a Cyclist, 1955) was followed (in the twilight years of Franco) by Eloy de la Iglesia’s Nadie oyó Gritar (Nobody Heard the Scream, 1972) and Antonio Mercero’s Manchas de Sangre en un Coche Nuevo (Bloodstains in a New Car, 1974). Even though The Headless Woman takes place in a modern “democratic” Argentina, the songs on the soundtrack – from the inimitable likes of Nana Mouskouri and Demis Roussos – conjure up echoes of military rule in the ’70s. “There is a relationship”, Martel says, “between the dead body you never see and the desaparecidos(2).

Flawed yet undeniably chilling, each of those earlier films is told with a psychological and narrative precision that allows us to empathise (if not sympathise) with the callous bourgeois protagonists. Clearly, these people feel they have no choice but to behave as despicably as they do. It is precisely this vein of middle-class guilt that has been mined by Argentine filmmakers since the ’50s. In such films as La casa del angel (The House of the Angel, 1957), the founder of Argentine “art” cinema, Leopoldo Torre Nilsson, showed a decaying bourgeoisie doing its utmost to keep unwelcome memories at bay:

He (Nilsson] explored in this period the contradictions and decline of Argentine upper-class and genteel bourgeois society. Constant themes are the clash between protagonists and their environment (and an almost Proustian reaction of characters to stimuli from the real world, a taste or smell triggering a series of voluntary or involuntary memories). (3)

Onetto’s character peers out at the world through the finger-smudged glass of her car windows (and the fingers may be those of a child now dead). She struggles to decide what she does or does not remember – while, in the hot air around her, a summer storm is about to break. It’s the same battle of memory that Argentine cinema has fought for so long.

Yet unlike those filmmakers before her, Martel lacks any sense of psychological motivation. “When I write characters”, she says, “I never think of their psychology because I know nothing about psychology. I prefer to think of the characters as children who are pretending to be adults.” (4) What’s more, she seems to view narrative as a necessary evil at best. Trying to steer the “hit-and-run” genre down a new road, she runs into serious danger of losing the map.

With its ambiguous middle-aged heroine and its crime-that-may-or-may-not-have-happened, The Headless Woman has echoes of François Ozon’s films with Charlotte Rampling – Sous le sable (Under the Sand, 2000) and Swimming Pool (2003) – except Ozon grants us emotional access to the character, in a way that Martel never does. Shortly after the accident, Verónica (a married woman) makes love in an anonymous hotel room with her cousin’s husband (Juan Manuel played by Daniel Genoud). Is this something they have done before and have, perhaps, been doing intermittently for years? Given that family life in a Martel film seems to be a long list of guilty secrets, that’s a distinct possibility. Or is it – and this might be more interesting – something they have wanted to do but always resisted doing, until the shock of the accident shatters their notions of “appropriate” behaviour?

Like so much else in The Headless Woman, it’s something we long to find out but never quite do. At the end of the film, the smoked glass doors close on a restaurant where Verónica and her circle have gathered to celebrate yet one more social ritual. We know little more about them than we did when we came in. With Lucrecia Martel in the director’s chair, we can rest assured that it’s not for lack of trying. It’s no accident that the one indelible character – apart from Verónica the Peroxide Sphinx – is Tía Lala, Verónica’s flamboyantly eccentric aunt. Bedridden and struggling with senility, Tía Lala spends her days watching videos of family weddings from 30 years past. Events she presumably saw at first hand, but no longer remembers, peopled by a close family whose faces she no longer knows. The one desire she has left is an endlessly frustrated wish to know what happened.

I can sympathise all too readily.

Endnotes

  1. Nick James, “He Who Dares”, Sight and Sound vol. 18, no. 7, July 2008, p. 22.
  2. Lucrecia Martel, interviewed by Demetrios Matheou, “Vanishing Point”, Sight and Sound vol. 20, no. 3, March 2010, p. 32.
  3. John King, Magical Reels – A History of Cinema in Latin America, new ed., Verso, London and New York, 2000, p. 80.
  4. Martel, p. 32.

La Mujer sin Cabeza/The Headless Woman (2008 Argentina/Spain/France/Italy 87 mins)

Prod Co: Aquafilms/El Deseo/Slot Machine/Teodora Film/R&C Produzioni/Arte France Cinema Dir, Scr: Lucrecia Martel Phot: Bárbara Álvarez Ed: Miguel Schverfinger Prod Des: María Eugenia Sueiro

Cast: María Onetto, Claudia Cantero, César Bordón, Daniel Genoud, María Vaner, Guillermo Arengo

About The Author

David Melville teaches Film Studies and Literature for the University of Edinburgh Centre for Open Learning. He has a special interest in melodrama, fantasy fiction and the aesthetics of dreams.