Monday, August 17, 2009

The Headless Woman

An object for endless study, Lucrecia Martel’s The Headless Woman is – though this doesn’t come close to exhausting its achievement – a remarkable experiment in controlled perspective. It’s like watching yourself inside a dream – uncomprehending, illogical – everyone’s looking at you like you’re crazy (and maybe you are you) but you’re not quite sure why. After middle-aged Argentinean dentist Verónica (María Onetta) hits a dog with her car on a country road (or is it a young Indian boy? – she doesn’t stop to check and the image we get of the dog is of uncertain perspective – whose point-of-view is this anyway?), her place in her comfortable world – along with the stability of her viewpoint (and the film’s) – begins to crumble. (You might say she starts to lose her cabeza.) But Martel’s always in sharp command, keeping us close to Veró’s headspace, even as we’re never permitted to penetrate her consciousness; keying almost every shot to her perspective, even as the filmmaker rarely offers up direct p.o.v.s. Instead a typical framing might go something like this: Onetta’s head wedged into one side of the 'scope screen, the background mostly out-of-focus or, when it isn’t, revealing a flattened space with characters neatly arrayed, whispering half-audibly. The whole thing’s disorienting, but it’s absolutely precise in its rendering of disorientation – an achievement enhanced by the audio mix which isolates certain sounds, mutes others and generally keeps things off balance.

All of which serves to chart Veró’s increasing distance from her husband, family and overall lifestyle which, Martel makes clear, relies on a bevy of impoverished Indians serving a small group of light-skinned masters, cooking their meals, washing their cars, delivering their plants. Is Veró’s growing insistence that she hit a boy with her car – despite initial evidence to the contrary – an expression of bourgeois guilt? It’s hard to say. The lead character’s mostly a blank - we may share her disorientation but not her thoughts. But what is certain is that the ass-covering reactions of her male relatives to the possibility of vehicular homicide are clear enough expressions of bourgeois irresponsibility. Either way, the question remains: what exactly did she hit? But maybe that’s the wrong question to be asking. In a film as calculatingly oblique as this one any sense of a stable actuality is nebulous at best. Especially given the ending, when just as Veró seems to be making some kind of readjustment to her (now discredited) lifestyle, her notion of reality slips away entirely and, in Martel’s fevered rendering, the world at last becomes a literal blur.

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