In her short career as a feature filmmaker, Lucrecia Martel has deepened the complex well of Art Cinema, developing an enigmatic collusion between close visual framing and layered ambient sound design, all while mining for universal contradictions and local tragedies within Argentina’s widening class divide. With The Headless Woman, her latest and most harrowing film, Martel finally transcends the minor failures of La Cienaga and The Holy Girl (vague characterizations, scattered plot-lines) and focuses her gaze, constructing a singular vision of trauma, guilt, and disavowal, a perfect realization of her previous obsessions.
The Headless Woman begins quietly enough, in the barren outskirts of an Argentinean town where three boys chase each other through the thick brush. Two are brothers, and one jumps down into a canal, asking his sibling to follow. The younger boy jumps in, only to find he’s been tricked. The older, stronger brother has already catapulted himself from the space. Martel holds the camera on the younger boy attempting to get out, running up the slab of concrete, failing to rise to safe ground. Then darkness, as Martel moves on leaving the boy’s fate ambiguous but indelible.
This opening is crucial for many reasons. The boys represent the native Indian lower classes often found in Martel’s films, emblems of repression that are pushed to the fringes by people of wealth and status. Also the concrete canal evokes a clear visualization of the unending quagmire between classes in Argentina. The film then cuts to Veronica (Maria Onetta), Martel’s focus on the Argentine elite. While driving home on these same dusty country roads, Veronica hits something while answering her cell phone. The camera never leaves the interior of the car as Veronica’s face turns from shock to panic. Martel gives a short glimpse of a body from afar, but the audience is never given clear evidence of what Veronica has struck. Is it an animal, or the boy previously trapped in the canal?
The uncertainty haunts Veronica’s upper class existence for the entire rest of the film. But in The Headless Woman, this plot device does not function as it would in Hollywood filmmaking. There will be no revenge, no psycho-killer seeking retribution. The film concerns itself with Veronica’s collage of emotions after she panics and drives away from the scene. Martel sends Veronica back to her world of privilege and wealth a tainted woman, and the development of both her layered reaction and those of the men around her make the film a masterful exploration of character and context. Accountability disappears as corners are cut, evidence is destroyed, and the entire fair gets brushed under the rug without protest.
Martel makes Veronica the center of every scene, stalking her with the camera enacting a visual parallel for her psychological state. Natural sounds fade in and out, scenes overlap onto each other, and life continues on without further incident. No police investigation, just interior conflict. Is Veronica truly shaken by the possibility of killing a child, or is she merely scared of getting caught? Maria Onetta’s eyes explore Veronica’s entire character arc, but never answer this disturbing question, making this mostly silent performance one of the year’s best. The Headless Woman ends in one stunning scene of guilt morphing into indifference, collecting the social artifacts of Martel’s oeuvre in a casual social setting, unmasking the skeletons of everyday life with a final moment of numbing silence.