Lost in the Movies: The Headless Woman (Best of the 21st Century?)

The Headless Woman (Best of the 21st Century?)

#90 in Best of the 21st Century?, a series in which I view, for the first time, some of the most critically acclaimed films of the previous decade.

There are the mysteries that wrap us up in the procedural onscreen, giving us a pleasing diversion and a riddle to solve, and then there are the mysteries which serve as red herrings, MacGuffins for something else. L'Avventura and Blow-Up belong to that latter category, and in The Headless Woman Lucrecia Martel follows suit. But if Michelangelo Antonioni was examining the psychology and spiritual ennui in his 60s classics, Martel's underlying investigation is primarily social. Vero (Maria Oneta) is driving down a dirt road by herself, returning from a get-together with her friends, mostly middle-class, middle-aged women like herself. Her cell phone rings and she leans over to take the call - the car slams into something, shudders and Vero freezes. We don't see what she sees - we're not even sure if she does see anything. She trembles, puts her sunglasses on, takes a few moments and then drives on, massaging her head which she hit in the accident. Looking back out of the car we can see what appears to be a crushed bicycle in the road - but this is not necessarily to say she hit its rider; in the first scene, a few children were chasing one another around and one of them easily could have left his bike in the road. Or so we hope - as does Vero. A torrential downpour has just begun, and as she drives into the rain she does not look back.

But wait, is it a bicycle? Spoilers ahead, I suppose, though what I am about to describe actually occurs in the first few minutes of the film. Following my viewing, looking for basic information on the film, I stumbled across a plot summary which claimed that Vero "clearly" has run over a German Shepard. Surprised, I returned to that moment in the film and yes, sure enough, that mangled black shape in the road is in fact the outline of a dog - the yellow of its belly had blended in with the dust kicked up by the car, and so I'd assumed this was the crushed structure of a bike, with perhaps a corpse hidden in plain sight nearby. It's quite possible that on a big screen this would be perfectly clear, but I like to think Martel purposefully obscured the victim of the accident, so that later in the film - when Vero begins to openly wonder if she's killed someone - we in the audience wonder alongside her, as I did. Anyway, one of the children we meet in the beginning does die; he is caught in the dry canal and drowned during the ensuing downpour. Later his body will be found jamming up the sewage system, causing an inconvenience for the locals who can't get water in their public restrooms.

By creating an at least mildly ambiguous situation around Vero's accident and the boy's death, Martel is drawing our attention to an indirect connection by means of (an apparently erroneous) literal one. No, Vero may not have hit the boy, but throughout the movie we are shown a disregarded, impoverished underclass haunting the edges of the frame - a population mostly more dark-skinned and sharp-featured than the well-off, professional characters we're focused on. In wondering if she has killed this one individual, Vero - and we - suddenly become more aware of her relationship to the class that boy belonged to, the class which cleans up, does odd jobs, handles paperwork, and hovers mostly unnoticed on the margins of Vero's life. Meanwhile, another mystery unfolds - how much do her friends and family know about her "crime" and what have they done to cover it up? Hotel and hospital records have disappeared and both husband and lover act evasive in her presence (at times we even wonder if the husband knows his friend's relationship to Vero, and considers it less important than both of them looking out for her in case she did commit a hit-and-run). Above all, everyone coddles and pampers Vero; by the end of the film, if the washing-out of her blonde dyejob is any indication, Vero may be tiring of the self-serving charade. Then again, maybe not; even her freshly black locks are not "real", asked by a friend if she's back to her original color, she says she can't remember and speculates that it's probably all gray now underneath.

In noting that Martel, in contrast to Antonioni, is excavating social realities rather than spiritual or psychological ones, I don't wish to imply that Vero is treated merely as a cipher, a figurehead for the complacent middle class being questioned. She too is a person and indeed, Martel almost never leaves her side, shooting the film in cramped close-ups and the occasional long shot in which everyone but Vero has left the frame. For at least half the movie, I didn't think she had hit someone, and took the film as a portrait of a woman with an undiagnosed concussion (after her accident, Vero wanders around in a daze for quite some time, arguably the whole film) who is paradoxically made more lucid about the surrounding artificiality. Her relationships and day-to-day activities are exposed as shams when she goes through the motions and nobody notices the difference (we shudder upon realizing she's a dentist, and wonder what this half-comatose practitioner will do to her patient's mouth, but this problem is elided). Even after the question of a possible accident victim arises, the film does not lose this "woman-past-the-verge-of-a-nervous-breakdown" angle, indeed it's strengthened by the raising of the stakes. Though it ultimately seems clear Vero had nothing to do with the boy's death, her comfort and complacency have been shattered; almost certainly she'll go on living as she always had, but without the same confidence or sense of illusion.

In focusing on the hazy memory and ambiguous guilt surrounding a small incident, Martel may be diagnosing a far larger pathology, and one more specific to Argentina than just exploitative class and race relations. As several commentators on the film have noted, in the 1970s the always tumultuous Argentinian political scene underwent one of its darkest chapters: a "Dirty War" in which the military junta "disappeared" thousands of dissidents (as in Pinochet's Chile, the regime was aided and abetted by the U.S. government - playing a role much like the husband and lover here, covering tracks and providing financial and other aid). Following the Falklands War, elections were held and while there were truth commissions and public amnesty, contention remained over the nation's - particularly the middle class' - ability to really faced up to what happened (as is often the case following traumatic national experiences). Vero does not run her own life and exists inside a bubble - facts she realizes only through that collision, whether or not it's with a dog. The accident serves as an awakening to the true nature of her reality, that her chores are done by servants, her security is provided by the men in her life, and her duties are performed by a body going through the motions. Yet in the end there is no indication that she will break out of this gilded cage; rather, she will probably continue on autopilot. Like a country well-provided for, but under a dictatorship, she is comfortable but not free, able to act but not to think or feel. Perhaps it is finally in this sense, rather than in connection with her possible concussion, that Vero is a headless woman.

Previous film: Gosford Park
Next film: Atanarjuat

Read the comments on Wonders in the Dark, where this review was originally published.

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