The Headless Woman (La Mujer sin Cabeza) Lucretia Martel (Argentina 2008) Maria Onetta
Viewed: Tyneside Cinema 6 Mar 10; Ticket: £7.00
No head for consequences
Veronica the protagonist in the Headless Woman (HW) seems to be one of those middle aged women who fucks not because she’s alive, but to confirm to herself that she is not dead.
Lucretia Martel (LM) premises HW on an idea about an ‘event’ that may or may not have happened. In this, it is in some respects similar to Antonioni’s ‘L’Aventura’ (1960) which starts with the ‘event’ of the disappearance of a woman on an island. In both Antonioni’s film and LM’s HW the initial provocations are never resolved but both movies deeply internalise the events (or perhaps non-events) into the psychic grain of the films; albeit in different ways.
With L’Aventura, the disappearance of Anna falls out of focus, new relationships new connections form and take her place. In Italy still shaken in defeat and trauma of war, Eros is sick and there is a consequent emotional and intellectual alienation cracking through the shell of the bourgeoisie, the professional classes and the intelligentsia. Individuals have no centre only surfaces and edges.
In HW the forces LM unveils at work after the (non) /event are different. Veronica is the name of the Saint who gave Christ her headscarf to wipe the sweat from his face, and whose image was miraculously transferred onto the surface of the cloth, the sudarium. I think it is Veronica herself in HW who is the impressionable sudarium, a character who in her dieing back has become a sensate surface, reactive to the past of the ruling caste of Argentina. A living re-agent to the forgotten: children stolen, victims disappeared, crimes covered over that no one knows for sure actually happened as darkness falls over the past. Veronica, as a neorealist heroine cannot react with action: she is simply overwhelmed, watching her own life as her own passive spectator.
The film’s setting is within the bosom of the wealthy middle class of Provincial Argentina. The spaces are filled with children, family, Indian servants, and the men who know how take care of things. The atmosphere is one of closeness, in particular closeness of a sort of neo-colonial control by a social subgroup unchanged for many a year. A group of people well equipped to absorb and subtly mould forces to serve its own needs: to erase the past and continue ‘life as normal’ as if nothing had happened.
LM’s reference to ‘Headless’ in her title refers, I think, to Veronica’s lack of a mind of her own; an incapacity to chose her own moral direction. Fixed in a social class that has no moral compass she is not able to say “No!” to take a moral stand based on memory, because no head, no memory. Put on the spot by a feeling that something has happened Vero is unable without a head of her own, to make any coherent move forward. And she is appalled and tortured by this inability which she sees but does not understand and which she is unable to counter. She withdraws into a sort of distracted trance and allows others to take the decisions, ‘ Nothing happened you hit a dog…’ and to take any actions thought necessary. Veronica distracted and scattered by the ‘event‘ at first watches over the reactions of others then retreats into a social cocoon from which at the end of the film she seems to emerge with a change of hair style and colour ( blond to black) . As if these cosmetic changes might redeem the past for her; as if the change from a military junta to a loaded social democracy could at a stroke redeem a class of people for responsibility for their past. Perhaps the change of image will succeed and disassociate her from the past she finds so difficult so disturbing so immobile.
LM with its mis en scene of rain and forgetfulness, its subtle plotting of events that dissolve upon inspection, its soundtrack skirting the film from somewhere just out of frame is wonderfully composed piece of filmmaking. My uncertainly about the film centres on its inconsequentiality and the extent to which it is allegorically layered. Perhaps it is a film about the neurotic responses of a middle aged woman to a driving accident. But the film only became interesting to me when I began to feel (right or wrong) that this was something more, a deeply layered portrayal of a world. Without the unpicking of allegorical cues the film became so much the less engrossing. It is also unclear whom it addresses. I think the film needed some break out from its carefully moulded unities. It needed a moment of revelation to open out to and to address the gaze of its audience with a moment of the real.
As it stands LM’s HW is almost completely self referential closing down the images into a narrow spectrum of concern. The danger for LM as a film maker is that she will disappear in the cloud of her own unknowing and our indifference. .