The Headless Woman (La mujer sin cabeza)

Argentina (2008) Dir. Lucrecia Martel

We’ve all had moments of doubt regarding something we may or may have done – “Did I turn the TV off?”, “Did I set the recorder for my programme?”, “Did I take the cat out of the freezer?”. These may be standard concerns of out temporary amnesia but they pale into insignificance when compared to wondering if you had killed somebody or not.

A group of young children are playing along with a dog on a busy road not far from the local canal in Salta, Argentina. Nearby some female friends of an upper middle class social circle are heading home. One of them, dentist Vero (María Onetto), takes her eyes of the road to retrieve her ringing mobile phone when she feels the car drive over a bump and hits her head.

Vero stops immediately but doesn’t dare to get out of the car, noticing what might be the body or either a dog or a human in the road behind her. Composing herself, Vero drives off to the hospital for a check up, diagnosed with a mild concussion. Haunted by what happened, Vero eventually confesses to her husband Marcos (César Bordón) but with no traces of it happening, leaving Vero to wonder if it ever happened at all.

There seems to be a case of diminishing returns between Lucretia Martel and myself in terms of my enjoyment and understanding of her works. I did like her debut La Ciénaga but wasn’t overly enamoured with the follow up The Holy Girl, whilst her more recent effort Zama I found an absolute chore to sit through. Martel’s third film, The Headless Woman unfortunately continues this steady downward trajectory.

Described as a “psychological thriller” I have to confess I found scant traces of either in this film though I can imagine anyone who sees the title and hopes for a visceral horror film will be even more disappointed than I was. At least I had an idea of what Martel might deliver but I didn’t even get that, though in some ways I did get exactly that, just not in the proportions I would have liked.

Martel is what can be described as a “subtle” filmmaker – if she is saying something in her films, it is not found in what is occurring on screen but occurring off screen and elsewhere. Symbolism is a favoured tool of hers but in this instance it is clearly too oblique for my feeble brain as I couldn’t read anything in the subtext or nuance of the narrative. Then again, they may not have been anything there at all, keeping in line with the conceit of the plot.

Vero – short for Verónica – fills the remit of what appears to be Martel’s favourite target, the modern bourgeois woman, concerned with her looks and standing within her social group than anything else. The family has ethnic servants who live many to a cramped apartment whilst the thought the exclusive swimming pool they frequent might be over chlorinated is their biggest daily concern.

So maybe it isn’t much of a surprise that well-respected dentist Vero would find it relatively easy to drive off after hitting someone or something without checking first. As callous as this sounds, her next stop after the hospital isn’t home but to a hotel where she meets her cousin Juan Manuel (Daniel Genoud) for some illicit sex. Then it is off home to hubby with a damaged car letting in water from the vicious rainstorm that suddenly broke and caused havoc across the area.

From here, Vero is driven about by anyone with a car, feeling unwell then feeling fine, with everyone being constantly concerned about her hair for some reason. Pretty much most of the people she encounters are not properly introduced so I must admit to having no clue who they were, thus their relevance to the plot was equally lost on me, if they had any at all.

This policy of tell don’t show works in the case of the actual accident and vitally so – the camera remains solely on Vero throughout the whole scene from her getting in the car to the bump and then moving off again. We don’t need to see what she hit otherwise we wouldn’t have a film, the first glimpse of something being what is seen laying in the road through the car’s back window.

A lot happens in the background of this film but being able to decipher what is or isn’t relevant might be why it is so hard to get a grip on where the story is going. One thing that can’t be said about it is that nothing happens because it does, the only problem is what happens is excessively dull, just the daily life of an affluent woman and her social circle.

Because of Martel’s propensity for being restrained in sharing the details, when something does actually happen it is almost likely to be missed or feel ineffective. When Vero finally reveals all, Marcos and Juan Manuel think it is the concussion talking but humour her and make some phone calls. Slowly but surely, signs of any accident having occurred vanish but Vero’s guilt doesn’t, exacerbating her confusion over the situation.

Whilst there is nothing wrong with a director keeping their cards close to their chest, it helps to give your audience something to bite onto and Martel is among that group who don’t give the viewer anything unless they happen to be on her wavelength. There are many, given the high praise and positive reviews this film and the rest of Martel’s catalogue has accrued, so as ever, yours truly is left on the outside as baffled as ever.

Even running for a swift 85-minutes, A Headless Woman felt like a 2 hour preamble that goes nowhere unless you know what to look for and in this case I felt like the headless one for not getting any of it.