Layers of Evidence
Chris Wisniewski on Lucrecia Martel’s The Headless Woman

No single movie could ever encapsulate any critic’s take on this past decade. During these ten years we not only watched films and reflected on the form, we also witnessed the medium itself transmute from an analog to a digital art. Given the charge of plucking one title from this period that somehow speaks to the vitality of the cinema, I admit to suffering from an abstract temptation to choose a movie that at the very least has something to say, because of its director, writer, or subject, about the future—whatever case I might otherwise be able to make about the movie itself. On that basis alone, Lucrecia Martel’s The Headless Woman fits a certain bill. A Latin American film by a queer female director, The Headless Woman seems, as a matter of pure demography, to point towards the twenty-first century, suggesting a clear break from the tired authorial hegemony of the first hundred years of the seventh art (dominated as it is by straight, white, and largely American males) as well as an example of where the most fertile ground for exciting new work might lie.

This is all true, except that The Headless Woman can hardly be defined by the demographic profile of its maker—perhaps resolutely so. Though rooted in a clear sense of place—like her other films, the northern Argentinean province of Salta—and grounded by a narrative and visual sensibility that is arguably feminine and, in its oblique inclusion of homosocial intimacy that is both emotional and physical, queer, The Headless Woman is neither a Latin American nor a feminist nor a queer film in an overt or obvious way. At this point in the history of film criticism, the auteur theory has become passé as a totalizing framework for understanding moviemaking as art, but Martel’s three features (and this one in particular), in their distinctive, shared point-of-view and unique approach to mise-en-scène and sound, provide irrefutable evidence that international art cinema still serves as a showcase for singular directorial talents who are, indeed, the principal creative forces behind their films. The Headless Woman may not make complete sense when seen as an exemplar of contemporary Latin American, feminist, or queer film; as a major work by a film artist at the height of her powers, though, it may be indispensable. And so, in choosing it as the film from the past ten years I would most like to discuss in the context of the future of the medium, I might be asserting, against my better judgment, the primacy of the auteur over and above national cinemas and identity art—the ferocious and aggressively confrontational cinema of Lucrecia Martel serving as evidence that an ethos long-since debunked in serious academic circles still has credence or at least value in the second century of the movies.

There is an undeniable satisfaction to be gained from putting Lucrecia Martel at the (current) end of a timeline that begins, more or less, with D. W. Griffith. “For me,” Martel explained to Amy Taubin in the pages of Film Comment upon The Headless Woman’s release, “a film is not just storytelling but an attempt . . . to share some perceptions with the viewer. A film for me is a mechanism to show thought, but I interpret thought as a mix of perception and emotion . . . I believe that storytelling is just the starting point; it’s like a device you use to share a lot more than the story itself.” Martel’s statement reveals much about her process and approach to moviemaking. In watching a film like The Headless Woman, one is constantly reminded that the position of the camera, the use of focus, and considerations of mise-en-scène and sound design are not motivated primarily out of a storytelling impulse. Instead, this movie, like all of Martel’s films, disrupts the typical language of narrative cinema, which favors spatial comprehensibility and cause-and-effect plotting as well as identification with character, in favor of an approach that is largely aesthetic and emotional. Without being didactic or ideological, The Headless Woman communicates an idea with every shot, dolly, and sound bridge, while eschewing traditional narrativity in refusing establishing shots and transition shots or even camera positions and movement that align us with a single character’s perspective.

Martel’s film tells a story—it follows a woman, Vero (Maria Onetto), who runs over something with her car and then flees, eventually coming to believe she’s killed a young boy—but it hardly sees storytelling as its modus operandi. In this sense, whatever the differences between someone like Martel and Terrence Malick, one can locate in both the possibility for a narrative cinema that has disposed of storytelling as its central guiding impulse, a cinema in which narrative seems to unfold in front of the camera, quite indifferently to considerations of framing and movement—and I emphasize the word indifferent rather than opposed. Think of the moment early in The Headless Woman, long before we find out that its protagonist is a dentist, when a confused Vero (who may or may not be suffering from a concussion) is greeted by a young girl in a hospital bathroom. Onetto occupies the distant left corner of Martel’s ’scope frame, her back to the camera. The girl, barely visible at the bottom of the screen, walks up to her, hugs her, and pulls up her upper lip to reveal her teeth—“look, an upper one.” We could never guess, on first viewing, what is really going on here: The girl is greeting her dentist with enthusiasm to report on her teeth, but nothing about the way Martel approaches the interaction gives context for it. The narrative legibility of the interaction, evident on a second viewing, is completely suppressed. The scene works, however, because it forces us into the position of trying to discern whether and to what extent Vero, still recovering from the accident herself, understands what is happening. The effect, though, is not so much of identification as it is of dissociation, of inviting us to consider why the girl assumes such a familiar tone with the movie’s protagonist and what, if anything, can be gleaned from the reserved indifference Vero displays. After all, Vero might be suffering from physical trauma that is leading her to forget the girl, or she may feel distracted by guilt about the accident she just caused, or she may be afraid of being identified by anyone, should the hit-and-run lead to a police investigation.

The Headless Woman asks us, again and again, to grapple with its characters’ actions, to question our assumptions about what we are seeing and why the characters behave as they do. The movie elucidates its story while throwing us into a state of ambiguity that may feel, at first, like confusion. It begins, typically for a Martel film, with sound. Martel has indicated in interviews that she frequently conceives of cinematic space sonically and that the aural coherence of the onscreen world of her films gives her the visual latitude to place and move the camera in unconventional ways and to improvise visually while onset. Here, an audible gust of wind plays on the soundtrack over the opening credits, establishing space in the absence of a more conventional opening wide shot. Then comes the first image, a tracking shot that frames part of a young boy’s arm and torso in close-up as he runs along an expanse with his dog. Wider ones follow, capturing several boys as they cross a street, slide down into a dried-up canal, and climb the side of a billboard (evoking, perhaps, the end of Martel’s debut film La Cienaga, in which a young boy climbs a ladder at his house and then falls to his death). This is potentially dangerous behavior, but Martel doesn’t give enough information, visually or otherwise, to determine exactly how dangerous and the extent to which the boys’ recklessness might be partially responsible for the car accident that is the film’s inciting incident.

Martel frequently describes her moviemaking as “layered,” by which she appears to mean that sound and the various visual elements that populate her frame, typically shot in shallow focus (with some essential aspects of mise-en-scène resolutely out of focus), work together to capture a setting, a social environment, and the people who live within those contexts in a way that asks the audience to make meaning from them, rather than instructing meaning. There is no better example of this layered cinema than the single-take accident scene at the beginning of The Headless Woman. From the passenger seat, we see Vero driving in profile, her vibrant red shirt and blonde hair—as we later infer, possibly an allusion to Vertigo and maybe also, in the way it highlights the comparative fairness of her coloring next to the individuals of Native American descent in the film (often maids and workers), a subtle evocation of race and social class—drawing our attention to the left side of the image. Behind her, in the center of the frame, children’s handprints are visible on the driver’s side window. An upbeat 1970s pop song, “Soleil Soleil,” plays on the car radio when Vero’s cell phone begins ringing. She turns to grab it, and then there is a thud, as the camera shakes and Vero’s sunglasses fall from her face. She stops the car as the music continues to play. She pauses, looking down and then up. Martel holds the camera as Vero eventually puts her sunglasses back on, restarts the car, and then drives off.

This one simple take of layered sound and image already contains much of what the movie will continue to explore during its remaining 80 minutes: the crash and thud provide the disruptive sonic evidence of the accident; Vero reacts almost too methodically, both confused and concerned before deciding—and it is a choice—to compose herself, put her sunglasses back on, and continue her drive; the handprints become a visual reminder that actions have physical traces, that this accident will leave a residue and therefore transitory proof of Vero’s actions (indeed, numerous critics have incorrectly hypothesized that the prints belong to the boy who may have been hit rather than the children who touch the window earlier—an indication perhaps that the resonance of the image matters far more than its narrative significance); the music, meanwhile, provides a social context, evoking 1970s Argentina and the dictatorship whose legacy haunts the attitudes towards class and social privilege that allow bourgeois Vero to get away with possibly causing the death of an underprivileged child.

“In a way, for me, to make cinema is very public. It is like a public speech. It is my way of belonging to history,” Martel told Reverse Shot when The Headless Woman premiered at the New York Film Festival. “I found in cinema a kind of happiness, a way to fulfill my life as an actor in this [Argentine] history.” Martel’s films, however resolutely they avoid didacticism, are steeped in a milieu that has a specific history—one that her movies evoke not through allegory but by interrogating a present that has been shaped by the past. By including the song “Soleil Soleil” in the accident scene of The Headless Woman, Martel directly references an era—perhaps from the military dictatorship of General Juan Carlos Onganía that began in late sixties through the junta that controlled the country between 1976 and 1983, depending on how one periodizes the history—in which violence was increasingly legitimized as a political tool. The so-called Dirty War associated with the last junta, resulting in (by some counts) upwards to 30,000 people being “disappeared” and countless others tortured or otherwise persecuted, brought a level of repressive violence that rivaled other regimes on the continent and marked, for Argentina, a time during which complicity in political atrocity, to varying degrees and at various levels, was diffuse and systemic. The effervescent pop of “Soleil Soleil” stands in marked contrast to the dark moral legacy of the period it brings to mind, and Martel’s film, without engaging in the kind of overt metaphor-making of a movie like Patricio Guzmán’s Nostalgia for the Light, indicts a historically specific form of willed forgetting. As she listens to “Soleil Soleil,” Vero appears to decide that she has the right to ignore the physical injury she may have caused, to forget her transgression.

In The Headless Woman, the question of what happened in the accident is finally beside the point. It’s not that Martel doesn’t care about the victim—on the contrary—but rather that Martel’s film accrues its potency through its depiction of Vero’s reaction to the accident and the reactions of those around her. Whether or not she is responsible for a boy’s death (and it becomes subtly apparent that she is), Vero believes she may be. And whatever the extent of Vero’s physical injury as a result of this accident, the film never leads us to doubt that she knows she hit something and chose to drive away, just as she chooses to leave the hospital, just as she chooses to sleep with her husband’s cousin in a hotel room the night of the accident, just as she chooses, finally, to confess the hit-and-run to her family rather than to the police, knowing full well they will protect her and eradicate the evidence of her crime—they’ll make it disappear. The brilliance of Onetto’s performance lies in her ability to convey this sense of deliberate action while obscuring her character’s mental state. She may or may not fully understand her environment, but she reacts to it consciously, making decisions born of self-interest while taking advantage of her social privilege.

When she finally confesses to her husband and his cousin, their first impulse is to reassure her that, given their connections to the police, they would have been informed if a boy had been killed. They tell her she was lucky she didn’t cause a “real accident” by swerving, that there was nothing she could have done. The husband dismisses the maid, who occupies the back of the frame, out of focus. In the shots that follow, the men tend to occupy the background as they make phone calls and examine the dent in Vero’s car. She stands in the foreground, sometimes barely visible, her passivity constituting an abdication of responsibility, an acquiescence to their ability to dispose of the evidence. At the end of the evening, her husband assures her, “Nothing happened”; a few scenes later, Vero again occupies the edge of the frame passively, her back to the camera as she rides in a car along the canal where the accident took place, while various people toil in the distance removing a blockage, the body of an animal or a person, from the canal. Upon hearing this, Vero doesn’t appear to react. She remains silent in the back of the car as it moves along. Again, without making any overt intervention in history or politics, Martel’s film issues a tacit moral indictment that has a historical and political dimension: abdication to moral responsibility and acquiescence to a cover-up, when someone has been killed, is, finally, tantamount to murder.

At the end of the film, Vero returns to the hotel she checked into following the accident the weekend prior. She inquires with the front desk attendant who informs her that there is no record of her room being occupied that previous weekend. It is impossible to tell, from the look on her face, how Vero feels upon learning that her actions have been elided, the evidence—like too much evidence—erased. Confused? Relieved? Guilty? Neither Martel nor Onetto grant us that kind of interiority. In The Headless Woman, what is important is how the characters act, not what they think. After cross-examining the hotel staff, Vero joins a party with her family and friends. The camera stays behind a glass door, and Martel captures her characters in medium long shot as they drift into and out of focus. Another older pop song, this one from the 1980s (Demis Roussos’s “Mamy Blue”), plays in the background as Vero retreats into the comfort of family and friends. As clearly as in the accident scene, the layers of sound and image convey a clear moral and ethical point-of-view, one rooted in this place and this nation’s history.

In numerous interviews, Martel has referred to her films as “mechanisms.” Given the way this connotes a kind of manipulation towards a desired end or effect for the audience, it is an odd word to use to describe movies that are as ambiguous and difficult as La Cienaga, The Holy Girl, and The Headless Woman, movies that demand their audiences to work hard to piece together plot and meaning. One can imagine many different people coming away from each of her films with disparate ideas about what they have seen and what they mean, and in this sense, her movies are hardly mechanistic. But a mechanism is also a system in which numerous constituent parts work in tandem to produce a result, and in this sense, the term is apt. Martel’s films all share an aesthetic density—a reliance on the interrelated elements of sound, framing, camera movement, focus, and mise-en-scène that in their totality express powerful ideas and emotions. I cannot say that Lucrecia Martel’s movies point a new way forward for the medium or that they are indicative of broader trends in world cinema or even, for that matter, Argentinean cinema; there is no need to burden them in this way. It’s heartening enough that this one particular artist, using the same basic tools that film directors have had at their disposal for the past 80 years, is making movies like The Headless Woman that feel defiantly her own, radically specific, and thrillingly new.