Sunday, December 27, 2009

DVD Views: The Headless Woman

The Headless Woman *** ½
Directed By:
Lucrecia Martel.
Written By: Lucrecia Martel.
Starring: María Onetto (Verónica), Claudia Cantero (Josefina), César Bordón (Marcos), Daniel Genoud (Juan Manuel), Guillermo Arengo (Marcelo), Inés Efron (Candita), María Vaner (Tía Lala).

Veronica (Maria Onetto) is driving down a deserted street when her cell phone rings. In her rush to answer it, she takes her eyes off the road, and hits something. She bumps her head, and is shaken up, but after a moment she drives on. We see something in the middle of the road in her rearview mirror. But she doesn’t seem to notice. She continues on with her day, meets up with her lover in a hotel, goes to the hospital to get the bump on her head looked at, and then tries to forget what happened. But she cannot forget, even though she seems to have amnesia. She becomes convinced that she did not hit a dog on the road, but rather a small native boy in the street. Although all the men in her life look into what happened, and cannot find any record of an accident that day that matches the description, she is still convinced. She allows them to take over for her. The cover her tracks, pulling strings to get the hotel and hospital records to disappear. They fix the car on the down low. They get her to dye her hair black. They cover her tracks excellently. It doesn’t matter to them if she hit a dog or a little boy. Because they are upper class, and the boy, if she indeed hit a boym is one of the poverty stricken people in Argentina, he might as well be a dog.

The Headless Woman is a difficult movie to wrap your head around. Having seen it once, I feel that I have just begun to scratch the surface of its mysteries. It has a distinctive look and feel to it. It is somewhere between David Lynch and Roman Polanski in terms of its style. What happens in the movie may not have really happened at all. Or perhaps it does. I’m not really sure. What I am sure of, is that while I was watching the movie, I felt like I was in the hands of a master filmmaker. Lucrecia Martel follows up her wonderful film The Holy Girl with an even more dense, interesting mystery.

At the heart of the movie is a wonderful performance by Maria Onetto as the woman. It is one of the more passive performances I have seen in a central role in a film in a while. She at first denies that anything happened at all, then she hides behind her supposed amnesia, and lets the men in her life take over. Her lover, her uncle, her husband, all of them has power, and all of them pull strings to protect her. If she did kill a poor kid, his family won’t stand a chance. The movie really is a family movie at heart - a movie about a dysfunctional, bourgeois family in crisis. The line between rich and poor is obvious from the outset. Often we see poor people in the background, cooking, cleaning and doing other menial chores. Or in one scene when Onetto goes into slums herself they seem to surround her, but she hardly notices. She hardly notices anything. She is almost like an observer in her own life.

I am sure that some people are going to be frustrated by the ambiguous nature of the ending. Martel does not bother to spell everything out for the audience. But in a very real way, it does not matter if she killed a dog, killed a poor kid or killed nothing. That’s not really the point of the film. The point is how Onetto reacts when she thinks she has killed someone. That nightmare feeling of paranoia and doubt creeping into her mind. It is also about the corrupt society run by men that can seem to get away with anything they want, and how the poor die all the time and no one really notices. After one viewing of The Headless Woman, I am still trying to figure it all out. Perhaps this film is the masterpiece - that many critics seem to be claiming it is - or perhaps it really does deserve to be booed like it was upon its debut at Cannes in 2008. I’m not really sure. What I am sure of is that The Headless Woman is like no other film I have seen this year.

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