A careful character study that doubles as a political allegory, a formally experimental cinematic undertaking that also serves as social critique.
The Headless Woman (2008) is a rigorous, disorienting film. It is meant to be watched over and over again and surely yields new insights with each subsequent viewing. The camerawork and script are disciplined and guarded; they show and tell exactly the minimum amount required to make the film progress through its sub-90-minute runtime. What is left is a careful character study that doubles as a political allegory, a formally experimental cinematic undertaking that also serves as social critique.
Argentine writer/director Lucrecia Martel is often labelled as an anti-plot filmmaker and this, her third feature, certainly does eschew narrative. The storyline, such as one exists at all, is quite simple: Veró (María Onetto), an elite middle-aged woman, strikes something with her car on an isolated dirt road and does not stop to investigate. In the aftermath of the collision, she has perhaps suffered a concussion and probably—there must be some doubt as to what events really occurred and which were imagined—visited a hospital and hotel. A week after the incident, a heavy rainfall floods the canal next to the dirt road and the locals discover the body of a boy obstructing the drainage system for the canal. Veró, increasingly haunted by her auto accident, confesses to her husband and his cousin that she thinks she hit and killed the boy. The men assure her she is incorrect and then, probably, work to erase any evidence that she may have contributed to his death.
There are three possible avenues for engaging with The Headless Woman. The first is to treat it as a puzzle, to scrutinize each scene and line of dialogue to work out what precisely happened. Martel shows Veró driving the car in profile—the camera is in the passenger seat—when she hits whatever she hits, and the director then shows a dog lying in the road as the car speeds off. Can more be seen on repeat viewings? Martel shows Veró going to the hospital and a hotel, but then later in the film she returns to each location and is told she had never been there. Was her visit to each place covered up by her husband or did she just hallucinate them? The sleuth approach, treating the film like Mulholland Drive or an episode of “Lost,” does not yield many answers; ambiguity and simply not knowing are crucial to Martel’s vision.
A second approach to The Headless Woman is to analyze its unique contributions to cinematic form; specifically, the film can be read as an attempt to enact concussion. Many scenes are confusing, with characters talking about relationships or events that are never shown on screen, furthering the viewer’s lack of comprehension. Martel also often frames scenes to include odd angles, multiple reflections and asymmetric staging. The Headless Woman plays with time and the viewer can never be sure how much time has elapsed between cuts. Veró’s failed attempt to retrace her hospital and hotel visits compounds the dizzy, disorienting concussion-like atmosphere; is the film’s narrator or camera trustworthy? But ultimately, Veró, in spite of her bewilderment throughout the film, comes across as lucid enough; while the film’s efforts to mimic concussion symptoms is a bold formal choice, it is more a matter of style than a way to create meaning.
The third approach is the most promising way of elucidating precisely what it is that Martel is trying to say with The Headless Woman. Namely, this is a film that should be read through its setting: Argentina, a country with a violent past and a history of impunity for those in privileged positions. What Martel offers here is a metaphor for her country’s history—of disappearances, severe socioeconomic inequality, racial discrimination, and conspiratorial cover-ups. Veró is an avatar of precisely this history of misdeeds. She is rich, white and privileged; she commits, perhaps, a murder-via-hit-and-run and easily avoids prosecution or any sense of responsibility for it. The boy she might have struck was shown in the film’s opening scene; he was poor, brown-skinned and worked a side job at a gardening center. The wealthy are the powerful and the powerful can do what they want.
The sense of ambiguity and confusion Martel cultivates places the viewer within the role of the average Argentinian in the past, who could not know for sure what was happening or why. The concussion-like atmosphere takes on a new meaning in this reading: it is the state of Argentina as a whole, emerging from an emergency with possible amnesia, tentatively working to sort out fact from hallucination. Veró, like her country, does not know the truth about the past or the best way to figure it out, but she knows enough to feel guilty about it.