for example, into the child’s ghostly handprints on the driver’s-side window of her car. Or the bus that blows by the children just before they run across the road. Argentine director Lucrecia Martel ( The Holy Girl) doesn’t present us with a fully formed story here, but she gives us a protagonist who knows less about what is going on than we do and the building blocks to construct whatever we like.
It’s a peculiar set of blocks. Martel and cinematographer Bárbara Álvarez frequently keep Verónica framed at eye level, in medium shots, as the story takes place around her and in the background— often through doors and rain-spattered windows. Verónica stands out by virtue of her (unnaturally) blond hair in a society full of dark-haired people. She doesn’t have much to say. A successful dentist, she is extraordinarily passive and seems to have little input or influence on the events that directly concern her.
Fortunately, she has a lot of help. The bustle of activity that surrounds her includes a fair amount of indigenous Argentine gardeners, servants, and retail employees, who linger in the background while assisting Verónica with the minutiae of life. Her aides are not limited to the working class, however. Friends and family step in to help her cover up the accident. But what actually happened out there on the road? Did Verónica run over a poor boy or a dog?
The HeadlessWomen can be seen as a statement on the widening gap between the rich and poor in Argentina. Again, this subtext surfaces through the visuals more than through the plot element of Verónica’s possible escape from justice. The upper class and lower class seem to exist in different worlds in the same frame, the difference accentuated by Verónica’s blond hair.
Social commentary aside, the movie will most remind viewers of disorienting fare such as Alfred Hitchcock’s Vertigo, Roman Polanski’s Repulsion, and David Lynch’s Mulholland Drive. Those pictures also featured blond women who were at the mercy of strange forces around them as they lost their handle on reality ( Mulholland even featured an unnatural blonde and a car crash). In the hands of masterful directors and skilled actors, these movies all suggest far more than they say. They use the visual cues of cinema to tell stories that couldn’t work in any other medium, and dig for a reaction that is difficult to describe.
Sadly, the audience for ambiguous cinema has been dwindling in recent years, for a variety of reasons. Some people feel that audiences are getting less intelligent, but I don’t agree. I do, however, feel that they are getting less imaginative. Computer effects have allowed big-budget filmmakers to put whatever they want on screen, in relatively convincing fashion, so movie audiences no longer need to use their imaginations to fill in the gaps left by technological limitations.
The Headless Woman (which also features an ending as memorable as its opening) is the kind of movie where you get out of it whatever you put in. That sentence will turn some people off, and that’s fine— there is nothing wrong with going to the movies to unwind with a passive experience. But consider also that at a taut 87 minutes, where nothing on-screen is wasted, The Headless Woman is great value. But you have to be willing to invest in it.
Passive voices are heard: María Onetto