The most salient feature of Lucrecia Martel’s 2004 film, The Headless Woman, is the insightful and meticulous observations she finds in mundane moments. The way droplets of rain disappear on a car window when they pass through a shadow and then reappear when they are backlit by the sky. The way dust clouds curl after someone stops walking. Martel’s films are autobiographical in nature but they are made far more intimate by simply watching the world through her eyes. We are invited to share in her perceptions and insights.
The Headless Woman begins with a climactic moment. A moment of crisis and change for the main character Veronica. She runs something over in her car and is too frightened to go back and look at what she hit. She is deeply shaken and seems to spend the rest of the film in a daze. However we never get to see her before the accident. We have no baseline of behavior to compare her current behavior too. It is difficult to discern what exactly is happening to her and whether or not she is changing.
The Headless Woman is about guilt and anxiety but more than that it is about how these feelings can separate us from everyone around us. This film reminds me of Todd Haynes’ Safe. There is the same sense of creeping isolation. Both films witness the world closing in around the main character. Their ties to the world they know are slowly dissolving. In The Headless Woman, Veronica floats dreamily through her surroundings. She is distracted and disengaged.
The compositions in the film are often cut into vertical strips. Doorways, walls, or mirrors divide up the screen and keep the characters from connecting. Veronica exists in one strip while the other characters are relegated to theirs.
There are also times when the screen falls into chaos. Martel grew up in a very large family which is apparent in her comfort with these crowded compositions. There are people all around Veronica. There are maids, family, and friends all talking over each other and brushing past each other. In the midst of all this activity Veronica remains placid and blank, only half aware of her surroundings.
As the film progresses Veronica’s daze begins to dissipate but she is not waking up to the reality around her. Her wandering thoughts have come to a conclusion. Veronica decides that she knows for sure that she has run over a boy in the car accident and begins telling everyone what she believes she has done. She has resigned herself to what she sees as a certainty.
This decision does not reconnect her to the people around her. She is less dazed but she is still sealed away in her world. The only time she seems to emerge is when a very old and sickly aunt mumbles about ghosts and unseen forces from the other side. Veronica feels haunted and her aunt who has one foot in the grave seems to understand her. The aunt is disconnecting from the world too and so both women share an ability to look at their world from the outside.
Just after the car accident, a storm comes. In Spanish, a storm is called tormenta which only furthers the symbolism as we hear the characters speak of it. The storm causes a flood. The resulting water is always present. People refer to it, and as the characters drive from place to place we see all of the canals are full.
After the great biblical flood Noah spends months searching for a safe and solid shore. There is the brutal anxiety of the trauma that has just passed and a need to find somewhere to begin anew. Veronica jumps ship at the first sign of land, unconcerned about whether the place she is going is a good choice. She is seeking something solid, something to end her daze but her solution does not look promising.
The Headless Woman is a beautiful and thoughtful film which finds insight in the small details of our existence. Veronica hardly speaks a word but her silence makes it easier for us to project ourselves into her place and imagine what she feels. Martel expertly utilizes the tools of her trade to convey a compelling portrait of a woman distracted by an inner dialogue we help to create.
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