Wednesday, February 17, 2010

Review - The Headless Woman (La mujer sin cabeza)

Every life hits the occasional bump in the road, but for Verónica (María Onetto), the central character in Lucrecia Martel's The Headless Woman, one such incident throws her whole life out of sync. She is the only driver on a dusty road when she is distracted by her mobile phone ringing and her car suddenly hits something. The camera doesn't move from its position in the passenger side of the car as Verónica screeches to a halt. What did she hit? A dog? One of the children we saw playing in the prologue? She could go back and find out, but instead she drives on, leaving behind a question mark that hangs over every frame of what follows.

The Headless Woman is a disquieting portrait of psychological dislocation, with Verónica, either through shock or simply denial, moving on with her bourgeois life in a kind of daze. She briefly checks herself into a hospital before abruptly leaving, and when she interacts with friends and family she seems unsure of her relationship with them. Verónica dyes her hair – as if trying to cut her ties with the guilty woman – but the suspicion that she may in fact have killed a child continues to loom in the background, even though her well-connected husband insists that any evidence of such a crime would be easily dealt with.

The Headless Woman itself is not quite so easy to deal with. It is a wilfully oblique puzzle of a film, requiring a great deal of effort from its viewers without promising satisfaction, and it is certainly the least accessible of Martel's three films to date. It is also a formidably skilful piece of filmmaking, however, with Martel displaying an outstanding command of her craft, and it is a film that grows increasingly compelling as we are drawn into Verónica's point-of-view. What makes the film so challenging and disorienting for the viewer is Martel's refusal to offer us the slightest helping hand. We are given very few clues as to who this woman was before the incident, and therefore we are in the dark as she slowly re-enters her life. We know that she has a comfortable existence – a dentist, she lives with her husband in a large house with servants – but we are also offered clues that suggest darker wrinkles to her story. For instance, shortly after the accident, Verónica checks into a hotel, where she ends up having a tryst with a man who is not her husband. Later, she visits a cousin and is confronted by the cousin's daughter, who grabs her in a lustful manner and insists that, "Love letters are to be read or returned." The teenager is played by the fine Argentine actress Inés Efron, whose brief scene here is inflamed by the transfixing hint of danger that's constantly lurking in her eyes.

Holding on to the remarkable performance delivered by María Onetto is perhaps the only way we can get through The Headless Woman without completely losing our bearings. She gives the film an emotional anchor that proves to be crucial, and her subtle, often inscrutable portrayal of Verónica is a stunning display of acting. In an extraordinarily difficult role, she moves slowly and deliberately, wearing a deceptively calm smile, and yet always making us aware of the guilt, confusion and fear that is pulsating beneath the surface. She is the perfect foil for Martel, as she holds the centre steady while the director shifts the focus around her. Martel uses her cinematic sense to express Verónica's disconnection, utilising off-kilter framing, sharp and unusual editing patterns, and some superb sound design. The film continually keeps the viewer on edge and off-balance.

It is a remarkably effective approach, and although the film contains little in the way of action, it develops into something surprisingly riveting. This is a film that demands the audience's complete attention, and it is exciting precisely because so few films really ask us to watch them so intently, in the hope of finding some clue buried in the film's peripheral vision. Of course, there's no guarantee you'll find anything at all there, and The Headless Woman often risks being too impenetrable for its own good, but while the film's mysterious and unresolved nature will inspire nothing but frustration for many, I found it uncommonly mesmerising.