Today’s entry is the first in the series to focus on the work of a female director. In the coming weeks, we’ll discuss contributions from filmmakers like Jane Campion, Catherine Breillat, Deepa Mehta, Rachel Raimist, G.B. Jones, Lynne Ramsay, Julie Dash, and Courtney Hunt, among others. But Argentinian writer-director Lucrecia Martel more than deserves her place in that list of auspicious talent, as she demonstrates with 2008’s haunting La mujer sin cabeza.
Billed in American theaters as The Headless Woman, many dispute what actually happens in the movie’s deceptively plotless, taut, and intricate 89 minutes. This is to the credit of Martel and lead actress María Onetto, who is devastating as dentist Verónica. Most viewers diverge about what transpires in the electrifying opening scene, which Mike D’Angelo wrote about in his A.V. Club series Scenic Routes.
The movie begins with Verónica and members of her family in a caravan. Verónica drives alone in her car and, while fumbling through her purse, hits a dog. Or maybe it’s a child. She’s not sure and confesses to her husband that her victim was a young boy. Her uncertainly was quite persuasive on critics, who were ambivalent about who or what she ran over. But I side with D’Angelo on this one: the victim is a dog. The camera provides evidence of this with a wide shot that isn’t filtered through a rear view mirror or any other vantage point that would suggest Verónica’s perspective. But the ambiguity and displacement Verónica feels as a result of the accident, represented through raindrops crashing into her windshield, a rearranged crime scene, and the visual motif of her head being obscured by a wall or cut off by the camera, is absolutely terrifying.
Following the accident, the movie follows Verónica’s physical recovery and mental decline. What I find most interesting about her interactions with women is how they are classed or raced. When she is in the hospital, her interactions are with orderlies and nurses, whose darker complexions contrast sharply with the patient’s light skin tone and bottle-blond hair. This is later recalled in the protagonist’s interactions with her domestic staff. Martel stated that the movie is about Argentina’s unacknowledged but widening class disparity. These scenes make this tension explicit, both by representing these professionals to orient our understanding of the protagonist and purposely relegating them to the periphery of the main character and her family’s concerns.
Once she is released, her verbal and gestural interactions with female family members prove disconcerting. Her niece, recently recovering from contracting hepatitis, confesses romantic feelings she can’t reciprocate. The women fret about turtles contaminating a private swimming pool they frequent, when not casting a critical eye toward childless, middle aged Verónica. Her dealings with male relatives are no less fraught. She runs a dentist’s office with her brother and has a fling with her husband’s cousin. While watching recorded footage of a family wedding, Verónica’s elderly aunt warns that eventually everyone in the family loses their mind.
While Verónica’s mental anguish is difficult to witness or parse out, what is especially upsetting about The Headless Woman is how denial is used as a solution to it. She dyes her hair black, goes back to work, and attends a fête with her husband. Interpreting the movie as a mediation on Argentina’s historical memory, Stephen Holden links her ultimate disavowal of the accident to her country’s quiescence during Jorge Rafael Videla’s military dictatorship. His regime was responsible for the Dirty War, which lasted between 1976 and 1983 and resulted in the execution or “disappearance” of thousands of left-wing political activists.
The reality of their whereabouts may not have been a pressing concern for Verónica’s family. But as the final scene indicates, attending a glitzy party with loud music and the illusion of glamour to suggest total rehabilitation does little to eclipse the past.