Sunday, January 17, 2010

Something Nasty in the Canal?

I like to think I'm fairly knowledgeable about cinematic matters, but I have to admit that I know absolutely nothing about Argentinean film. As such, I had very few real expectations going into Lucrecia Martel's 2008 film The Headless Woman, which showed in a few American theaters late last year. I admired the film more than I liked it; it's clever and difficult without being especially interesting.

The Headless Woman doesn't tell a story so much as suggest it. Forty-something dentist Vero (Maria Onetto) attempts to answer her cell phone while driving. She leans over her purse, takes her eyes off the road, and hits something or somethings. Certainly she kills a dog, but she has a suspicion she may have done something far worse. The road is dusty and empty and sits by an empty canal. There were no witnesses and nothing in the canal would be seen by a casual observer. Vero drives away from her accident; she sees the dead dog in her mirror, but doesn't investigate further. Soon after Vero's accident there's a great rainstorm and the canal fills up. Soon enough, firemen are dredging to remove a mysterious blockage in one of the canal's drains...

A short synopsis like the above makes The Headless Woman sound like a fairly conventional thriller. It's not. The movie is in fact a very slow-moving and generally un-suspenseful character study of Vero and her life. We meet her extended family (ailing aunt, busy sister, daughters and nieces), her coworkers, her husband, her lover. At times these characters seem to blend together; they're never clearly introduced to us, and the cinematography often obscures our understanding. Especially in the film's early parts, many shots are so dark as to be cryptic. We see people through tinted glass or rain-streaked windows; people that are not Vero have a disconcerting tendency to be out-of-focus. Most of the conversations we hear are banal; dialogue often takes place off-camera as the camera lingers on Vero's face. It's disconcerting and often frustrating, though undeniably well-done. The Netflix description of the film suggests that Vero can no longer distinguish between her various friends and acquaintances. The film never says this outright, but the explanation makes a good deal of sense.

There are indeed many things that The Headless Woman never says. Plot twists are hinted at, but remain just out-of-sight. We never see a corpse, nor can we know for sure that Vero was responsible for one. Two fascinating clues to the story appear at the end, but neither leads to a dramatic onscreen revelation. And even if Vero did kill someone, it wasn't a woman, so the title remains ambiguous. I assume it refers to Vero and her lack of moral (and perhaps) mental sense, though it may also allude to a 1940's Argentinean shocker of the same name. And of course there are several shots, including one right before the film's title appears, where Vero's on camera but her head is out of the frame.

This is a film full of mysteries. There's that car accident, of course, but also a whole bevy of little enigmas. What, exactly, was originally built on the site of Vero's garden? And how did that one relative die? Still, for all its puzzles, The Headless Woman is sometimes too quiet for its own good. Its commentary on modern society is not always especially enthralling.

At times it seems as if half of The Headless Woman's running time consists of close-ups on Vero's silently anguished face. Maria Onetto does a wonderful job portraying Vero; her eyes and the lines on her face coney what her generally-uninteresting dialogue does not. Vero is sad, stoic, and somewhat acerbic; the film suggests she was little different before the accident. Very few of the people around Vero could guess she has undergone a life-changing, epochal event. Only the audience, after all, witnesses the accident. As we see several times throughout the film, Vero's friends and family are more likely to comment on her changed hair color than on her changed life.

I imagine a second viewing of The Headless Woman would make a number of details about the film clearer; for one thing, I'd know which little things to watch for. Other things, I suppose, have no explanation. The Headless Woman is not a bad film, though it feels longer than its eighty-seven minutes. I'd like to see more from Martel, but The Headless Woman didn't impress me as much as I hoped it would.

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