Southern stories: Lucrecia Martel's languid scenes, cadence, eccentric family characters and heightened natural sounds--seen in "The Headless Woman" on the SFFS Screen--share ambiance and essence with William Faulkner's writing. (Photo courtesy SFFS)

Lucrecia Martel and "The Headless Woman"

Gail Spilsbury September 18, 2009

Newcomers to Argentine filmmaker Lucrecia Martel’s work might wonder what’s going on as her latest film The Headless Woman begins. In the same vein as her two earlier films, La Ciénega (2001) and The Holy Girl (2004), her story plunges viewers instantly into a microcosm without offering any introduction or explanation. We are simply there, immersed in the senses and perceptions of the scene along with the characters. We hear the same natural sounds vying for our attention: snippets of conversation, shrieks from children, car doors slamming, dogs barking, car engines igniting—it’s a kind of madness but at the same time a perfect replica of reality. We hang on, wondering how this all will unravel and make sense. Martel’s extraordinary cinematic gifts amplify the tension she creates by fully immersing viewers in her story, where plot plays a secondary, though pivotal, role. Martel’s camera shots are like the paintings of Rembrandt or Caravaggio; her brilliant and relentless use of chiaroscuro in darkish, sensual interiors arrest the eye and breath, eliciting excitement.

To viewers of Martel’s earlier work, The Headless Woman, which plays on the SFFS Screen at the Sundance Kabuki beginning Friday, is the crowning achievement of something incredibly complex and beautiful that the 43-year-old filmmaker seeks to share with those who can connect to her world vision. In a recent interview, Martel said that in The Headless Woman she had "finally found the format that I wish I had found before. It’s not one-dimensional but like a fishbowl with many layers, an elongated format."

"I never saw the films as a trilogy," Martel said, in response to reviews that refer to her work as the "Salta Trilogy." All three films derive from her North Argentina upbringing and share atmosphere, mood, language, familial culture and social class dichotomies, yet Martel understands her work as a "slow evolution, not an objective process." Her languid scenes, cadence, eccentric family characters and heightened natural sounds share ambiance and essence with William Faulkner’s Southern stories. Martel said she is aware of this relationship and believes that Faulkner’s South and her northern Argentina bear similarities. "North Argentina is more Catholic and more influenced by Spanish colonizers," she said. "Social classes and ethnic conflicts are more pronounced. And in the north, psychoanalysis hasn’t had the same impact as in the south. Sentences are longer in the north, more roundabout, abstruse—related to oral narratives."

Martel said she owes her cinematic debt to this oral, narrative tradition. "It’s a conversation style; the sound structures are complex. Sound has a function that goes beyond sense or meaning." Growing up, nap time came after lunch, and Martel’s grandmother told the children stories in order to keep the kids still in bed. "She would emotionally tether us to the bed with her horror stories, told with such sweetness and charm." Martel’s upbringing and family life mark her cinema. "Conversations would hide or express emotions," she said. "Families are familiar and have an intricate conversation code that all members understand. Families are a perfect setting to observe relationships, and language occupies an important place in all of this. My family experiences and observations drove me to cinema." Her guiding principle in filmmaking is the old adage, We’re born alone and die alone." The body’s geography is a place of absolute solitude,"she said. "Life is our attempt to get out of that loneliness, to move out of the self and reach out to another. Cinema is that, to help someone else, to bring them into your own realm of perception. Ultimately you’re doomed to failure, but even a few seconds of connection, joining, is success."

In The Headless Woman, an upper-middle-class dentist named Vero reaches for her cell phone while driving home and hits a dog. She believes she hit a person. She decides to drive on and ignore the accident. The rest of the movie studies her reaction, from initial shock and dislocation—almost amnesia—to slow return to her swarming extended family. Class division is a subtheme of the story, as dark-skinned servants are treated as a subspecies. Both Vero’s husband and her lover (a member of the family) cover up any trace of her involvement in the accident—removing emergency room records, erasing her overnight stay at a local hotel, and repairing the front end of her car in another city. The cover-up is necessary because a boy was found drowned at the same location and at the same time as Vero’s accident. It’s probably a coincidence—there was a violent storm that filled the canal where the boy was found—but since Vero believes she hit a person, the family acts. The dead boy’s ethnic origins add to the subplot of class division.

Although ambiguity permeates this movie as if it is the subject being explored by the filmmaker, the sheer experience of the film’s "reality" is what Martel is offering: Immerse yourself in this world, come away from it with whatever your senses and mind have experienced. This plethora of varying reactions is the mark of a great work of art.

Martel’s films, including The Headless Woman, end just before most films do, that is, with the resolution. Her penultimate scenes softly conclude her films with beguiling beauty, leaving viewers suspended and encouraged to draw self-fashioned conclusions. It’s all about the individual’s perception, the singularity of the individual. Yes, we are all humans, more or less alike, and the conclusions we draw from the films will be more or less alike, but our experience in them and our ideas about them are our own. Martel’s cinema fleetingly brings us together in its fishbowl immersion; we escape from our solitude and share with others; afterwards we’re on our own again. The filmmaker has expressed herself flawlessly.

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