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Argentine politics from the 1970s and class differences of today play
an important role in Lucrecia Martel's third film, The Headless Woman,
the story of a middle-aged woman refusing to confront the truth about a
hit and run accident. Shown at the Vancouver Film Festival, The
Headless Woman, like Martel's earlier works, defies conventional
cinematic language and can be challenging to appreciate on first
viewing. Characters come and go, seemingly unrelated incidents pile up,
and we hardly know who is who, but little of that ultimately matters.
What is more important is that Martel has taken us effortlessly into
the head of the main character as persuasively as any film in recent
memory and has turned one woman's failings into a clear and simple
statement of her own vision.
The Headless Woman opens on a rural road in Salta Province in northwest
Argentina where four young boys and their dog are engaged in risky play
along the highway as a car approaches. The atmosphere is one that
portends danger. Meanwhile, a group of friends prepare to leave a
gathering. Children are being shepherded in and out of cars while one
mother, Josefina (Claudia Cantero) models her eyelashes in the car
window. One woman (Maria Onetto) stands out because of the bleached
blond color of her flowing hair that comes down to her shoulders The
woman, Veronica (called Vero by her acquaintances), runs a dental
clinic with her brother but we know nothing else about her life, past
While driving home by herself, she hears the ring of her cell phone and
is momentarily distracted from the road. Suddenly she feels a thud and
her head is thrust backward, then forward onto the dash. Whether or not
she has hit something, a dog or a person, is unclear because the woman
is frozen into inaction for what seems to be an eternity. She stops the
car but is unable or unwilling to step outside to see what happened.
She thinks she sees a dog in the rear view mirror but does not turn
around to get a closer look. Eventually she gets out of the car but
simply stands there while the first drops of a heavy storm pound the
windshield and we can see mysterious fingerprints on the side window.
Soon she drives off to be x-rayed at the local hospital while the radio
plays Nana Mouskouri's "Soleil Soleil", a song that was popular in the
seventies. She appears dazed and barely recognizes the people around
her but continues smiling incessantly. Her husband Marcos (Cesar
Bordon) notices her disorientation but learns nothing about that night
until much later when she tells him that she may have killed someone.
Juan Manuel (Daniel Genoud), her husband's cousin and occasional lover,
calls the police and tells her there were no reports of an accident on
that night but one week later, a boy's body is retrieved from the canal
with no indication of a cause of death. The boy was one of the children
who worked for her gardener. Immediately her friends cover all traces
of her possible involvement in what could be a potential crime. X-rays
disappear as well as records of her hotel room tryst with Juan Manuel.
Similarly, her car is repaired with all traces of the accident removed.
The Headless Woman is grounded in Vero's inability to focus on the
reality of the life happening all around her. She is a detached
observer rather than a participant, operating in a world of privilege
where her every need is met by her extended family or by dark-skinned
servants and boys begging to give a car wash for something to eat. In
that milieu, Vero can easily avoid taking responsibility for her
actions whether it be cheating on her husband or failing to investigate
a car accident. Like the pampered middle class of her country, she is
deaf to the suffering around her, and her decision to forget may be a
metaphor for the collective amnesia of her country of the torture and
murder of thousands during the dictatorship of the seventies.
Martel has stated that her aesthetic decision to link the 70s with the
current time is a statement calling attention to the fact that the
blindness of the past continues to the present day in the growing
disparity between rich and poor. That she has shaken us and provoked us
to look at unpleasant facts about her characters, the world, and
perhaps even about ourselves is a hint as to why her magnificent and
audacious film was booed at the Cannes Film Festival.
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