Saturday, August 15, 2009

Lucrecia Martel's THE HEADLESS WOMAN: a visual feast of diminishing returns

What a glorious face has María Onetto, the star of Lucrecia Martel's newest, THE HEADLESS WOMAN (La mujer sin cabeza). Pictured in the final three photos below, this actress combines a classic, middle-
age beauty with the ability to convey a sense of so much going on underneath

her visage that the resulting performance simply rivets. Just watch as she drives a little too fast along a back road. When the key event happens, that face mirrors it all -- in both minute changes and major I-dont-want-to-deal-with-it drama. Ms Martel (shown at right), who grows in stature (in some ways, at least) with each new movie, knows how best to capture her actress' abilities. Where she places her camera, for how long, how she chooses to move that camera and then edit the results could hardly be improved.
(Her cinematographer and editor here are, respectively, Bárbara Álvarez and Miguel Sverdfinger.)

If the remainder of her new movie kept pace with its first half hour, this would be the writer/director's best in all ways. Unfortunately most of its interest occurs upfront. By the end, I felt as though I'd been there/done that, though I admit to enjoying the being and doing, even second-hand. Part of the reason for my deja vu has to do with The Headless Woman's being so close in locale, feeling and character types to Martel's first international success,The Swamp (La ciénaga), and in the manner in which the satellite ensemble revolves around a main character, as in her sophomore effort The Holy Girl (La niña santa). In all three films Martel nails the anomie of bourgeois Argentine life and how it dissipates character.

After the first few minutes of the film, so little action actually occurs, I am tempted to dispense with all plot-telling and let you pick up what little there is on your own. This is one of those films in which nothing seems to happen but quite a lot goes on. Visits occur to the doctor and the hospital, shopping is done for home and garden, assignations happen, bits and piece of the past are brought, if not to light, at least to shadow. Through it all, Ms Onetto's character, Verónica, glides along, near-Zombie-like, speaking little or not at all, barely answering questions, yet being "taken care of."

I believe part of Ms Martel's point here is that woman's place in today's Argentina remains far too narrow and shallow. An inordinate amount of Veronica's life, particularly post-event, are handled for our main character by men -- husband, lover, brother -- leaving her "free" to float. By the end of the film, she's not only no nearer to learning the truth of what happened, she -- and we -- seem to wonder if much of anything occurred at all. (This, by the way, can be leveled not only at the tale told in the movie but at the film itself.) I believe that what she imagined happened did happen, though I have no real proof. Nor does she. What proof there may have been has disappeared. And if the word rings an oddly familiar bell, well, this is Argentina, where they're good at that.

Though The Headless Woman is definitely Ms. Onetto's movie, the rest of the ensemble is expert at defining character quickly (there's little exposition; the viewer is simply tossed into things). Among the cast is Inés Efron (from XXY and Glue), who has a small but piquant part in the proceedings. Distributed by Strand Releasing, the film begins a two-week run this coming Wednesday, August 19, at New York City's Film Forum. Further playdates around the country are expected, followed by a DVD release, one hopes.


GHJ - said...

Wow! I just watched this and its by far my favorite film of the year. For the first time, Martel realizes her themes of isolation, class divides, and guilt masterfully and clearly without sacrificing her style. I will have something on Match Cuts by the end of the day. I'm buzzing from the experience.

James van Maanen, said...

Had a feeling you were going to LOVE this one, particularly after reading your post on The Holy Girl. I'll check Match Cuts tomorrow for your post....