You’ve seen this empty canal before. Some boys and a dog were running around here, across the street and into it, just a few minutes ago. But you’re not prepared, five minutes into The Headless Woman, with a sunny pop song on the car radio, for the protagonist to hit something. Yet you’ll spend the rest of the film making sense of what happened here, of what you’ve seen and not seen. In the films of Lucrecia Martel you’re challenged to pay attention well before you’re ready, to play catch-up, figuring out who’s related to whom and what is relevant. But as with the protagonist’s subsequent disorientation, your heightened yet bewildered state isn’t a set-up or effect—it’s the point. Martel sharpens your senses—and celebrates and rewards them—while compelling you to distrust them.
In each of Martel’s first three features, a mysterious incident confounds characters and viewer alike, setting a tone that the Argentine director sustains yet also narratively subverts. In La Cienaga a woman falls onto her wine glass as drunk swimsuited houseguests fail to notice or care about the bloody mess; in The Holy Girl a man presses himself sexually against an impressionable young woman in a crowd; and in The Headless Woman, Martel’s latest knockout, Vero (Maria Onetto) hits something on the road, reacts strangely, then forgets herself. Martel reinforces disorientation by pairing shallow-focus close-ups with episodic narrative; hers are meandering stories presented as visual suspense. Although Vero’s gradual recovery of self and memory serves as Martel’s clearest through-line to date, dramatic resolution remains a low priority. At any moment there can be revelation, but confounding moments are destined to follow. Minor clarifications only deepen the major mysteries of consciousness and perception. Click here to read the rest of Eric Hynes's review of The Headless Woman.
And on the occasion of this brilliant film's theatrical release, we've reposted Chris Wisniewski's insightful interview with Martel, conducted on the occasion of the film's premiere at the 2008 New York Film Festival. Here's a sample:
RS: One of the layers that seems to be present in all of your movies is the issue of class, and I think here, you have moved it to the foreground.
LM: Because it was interesting to show without pointing to it or underlining it. The mise-en-scène, the movement of the characters, and the use of focus—what was in focus and what was not—allowed me to make a very clear reference to it.
RS: Vero goes through the film confused, and we share her confusion. Sometimes we see things that she does not see, and other times, she see things that we don’t. For example, when they go driving at night, her husband talks about seeing the dog, but we never see it. How did you decide when to show us more and when to obscure what we see?
LM: For me it’s very clear. Most of the time, I trust what the characters are saying. So if they say they see a dog, I believe there is a dog. If you show everything, you underestimate the audience. It is important to blur the line between what is real and what is not and to get people to think about reality and perception. If you show everything, you make this path very clear and precise, and it doesn’t help the film.