REVIEW: DVD Release: The Headless Woman

Film: The Headless Woman
Release date: 12th July 2010
Certificate: 12
Running time: 89 mins
Director: Lucrecia Martel
Starring: Maria Onetto, Claudia Cantero, Inés Efron
Genre: Mystery/Drama
Studio: Drakes Avenue/New Wave
Format: DVD
Country: Argentina

The follow-up to Lucrecia Martel’s La Niña Cannes nominated La Nina Santa (The Holy Girl), sees the director tackling and exploring weighty issues such as guilt and emotional repression.

At the beginning of the film, Vero (María Onetto) is driving home from a family gathering and hits something with her car, bumping her head in the process. What follows is a study of Vero’s increasing anxiety as she begins to believe that she has killed someone, and a dazed and confused look at the inner workings of her strange and secretive family...

It is difficult to define exactly what is happening throughout most of the film, both in terms of what is happening in the story and in terms of the abstract, disjointed position that Martel’s camera chooses to place the viewer in many scenes of the film. Often we are not entirely sure what we are seeing, or where we are seeing it from. Sound is also used to this effect, with conversations being scarcely heard through thick windows, or taking place in the background of crowded and densely layered scenes. These techniques work to intriguing and often visually striking effect. Martel’s attention to detail is admirable, as is her use of depth of frame, meaning most of the film is aesthetically indulgent. As well as this, the distracted and unfocused mode of delivery serves as a window into the world of Vero, who is often slow to respond when asked a question, and seems to wander around in a dream-like state of apathy; her cheery half smile masking a vacant and world-weary look in her eyes.

However admirable Martel’s attempt to frame the world of the film through Vero’s perspective may be, it is in doing so that she encounters the film’s biggest problem. In creating a world so dreamlike and unfocused, she has also made a film which is fairly dull and unfulfilling. So little happens in the course of the film that we are left to ponder what, if anything, it was all about, and several aspects of the story of which more could have been made are subjugated in order that the camera may linger on several shots which, beautiful though they are, always seem to last a few seconds longer than they should.

Narrative ambiguity is always risky territory for filmmakers, as some viewers are always going to demand some kind of definite idea of what is going on, nevertheless an ambiguous ending can be rewarding if it comes at the end of a story that is gripping and layered, that provides material for viewers to discuss long after seeing the film, and demands to be seen again. This is clearly the effect that Martel is aiming for, but she has not left enough interesting material within the framework of the narrative to make any attempt to understand the sub-textual implications worthwhile. The film certainly does drag on, rarely has a film with such a short running time managed to seem so long and this is because we are moving from scene to scene waiting for something to happen, waiting for something to get our teeth into and ponder - something which never arrives.

It is in the nature of arthouse cinema to offer character studies rather than coherent, fast paced narratives, and this is perfectly fine in many cases because we see characters with such complex psychologies that delving into them and exposing what makes the character behave in the way they do is the most interesting aspect of the film. Vero, sadly, is no such character, and this is not a failing on the part of Onetto, who plays the role very well, but of Martel’s in deciding to make a film based on such a character. The whole point about Vero is that she is distracted, that she finds it difficult to engage with those around her, and that she has a lot of internal conflict that she does not allow to spill over into the surface. The fact that there is no penetration of these exterior characteristics, no supporting character who gets in side her head and exposes to the viewer what she is really feeling, leaves the viewer with very little to gain from watching the film, as it doesn’t really work either as a drama or as a character piece.

If Martel’s story had the strength of her artistic vision, she could have made a truly powerful, gripping drama. Instead what we are left with is a visually impressive but ultimately unfulfilling film, which leaves the viewer looking for answers, but not particularly willing to revisit the film in order to find them. PK

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