Headless in Salta

The Headless Woman (d. Lucrecia Martel, Argentina, 2008).

It opens cramped. The truncated or headless frame is filled by the running legs of a boy, a German shepherd at his side. Just about the sole establishing shot of the film then discloses that the boy is one of three dark-skinned kids, Indian or mestizo, horsing around on a sparsely trafficked dirt road. A quiet note of menace is struck by the horn of a passing bus—it could have hit someone—but more ominous is the absence of music, a withholding of emotional cues that, like the shallow-focused, constricted, almost claustrophobic framing of shots, will characterize almost the whole of the film. The tight framing often means you’re not immediately sure where you are. The ban on music means the film won’t tell you how to feel. Which uncertainties make you anxious, afraid to find out.

One of the boys is petitioning the other two, without success, for “la bice,” la bicecleta, which they seem to have taken or hidden from him. A boy cartwheels into a dry culvert running beside the road, and the boy who wants the bike gives chase, but is unable to clamber out of the culvert, with its raked concrete sides, quickly enough to keep up with his brothers or friends.

Cut to a woman trying out some new mascara in the improvised mirror of a car window. A few kids and their—it is instantly visible—well-to-do mothers are dispersing after a some kind of gathering. I guess it took until my fourth viewing before I got it that one of the ladies must have held a sort of Tupperware party, but selling cosmetics instead. At any rate, with their elegant small boxes of mascaras and creams, the women are piling into their cars. A little boy has left some handprints on the driver’s side window of one car. This car turns out to belong to Véronica, a woman of about forty being complimented by a friend on her newly bleached hair.

Véro, with her incredible head of yellow hair, is next seen driving down the same country road where the boys were playing. She’s listening to some inoffensively banal and cheerful pop when her cell phone chirrups. She turns to answer it, and you hear two sickening thuds. Véro steps on the breaks. She retrieves her sunglasses from the floor. You observe her in profile as she considers turning around to learn what she’s hit. (The pair of ghostly handprints is fading from the driver’s side window.) Véro puts the car in gear and drives away without looking back. In a rear window shot, you see a dead dog that she does not.

Farther up the road, she stops the car and gets out. The camera remains in place for the profile shot, though the profile is gone; in fact, you can’t see Véro’s head, only her agitated body, as she paces outside, where it’s started to rain. The opening titles announce La mujer sin cabeza.

The Headless Woman, written and directed by Lucrecia Martel, seems to have divided its small audience about equally into contemptuous detractors and bewitched fans. Even among people who didn’t like the film, no one seems to have denied that the opening sequence is remarkable.

I first saw the film one afternoon in October of 2008. It was springtime in the southern hemisphere, and violet jacaranda blossoms flanked the broad avenues of Buenos Aires, and the streets smelled faintly, as always, of diesel exhaust from the colectivos, as the ubiquitous brightly-painted buses are called.

Latin America, being a world of privatization and inequality, is also a world roughly divided into the drivers of private cars and the riders of buses. Public transportation systems have languished where they were built at all. The over-trafficked and under-maintained roads are correspondingly dangerous, and it occurs to me that the traffic accident movie—like Amores perros and La mujer sin cabeza, not to mention all the gruesome pile-ups in the recently-released and very bad Carancho, from Argentina, or all the improvised roadside crosses and tell-tale sirens in a non-traffic-accident movie like Y tu mamá también—may be a particularly Latin American genre. The fact that a movie like Crash emerged from LA would then only further confirm that city’s Latin Americanness.

In any case it was almost two years ago that my sister Lisa and I walked up from the San Telmo neighborhood, where I live, to the microcentro, where we watched The Headless Woman on the warped screen of a musty-smelling art house theater, with wooden seats bolted to the flat cement floor, on the calle Salta. No street in the city could have been more appropriate, since Lucrecia Martel grew up in Salta and has set each of her three features (La ciénega and The Holy Girl are the previous two) in or around that colonial city in the mountainous northwest of Argentina.

The Headless Woman is one those movies you talk about the whole way home. Did Véro merely run over a dog, or did she actually hit one of the boys from the opening scene? Undeniably that was a dead dog on the road, but then later on, as you and the main character learn, the body of a boy has been found clogging a pipe in the culvert, now filled by the rainstorm, the downpour of the opening sequence. Wouldn’t it be possible to knock a kid off the road and run over his dog? And yet the boy did have some trouble climbing out of the culvert. Maybe the tormenta unleashed a flash flood that drowned him?

Several relationships in the movie were also puzzling. When, after the mysterious, definitive accident, Véro checks herself into a hotel, is that her cousin or brother-in-law (or both) that she sleeps with? And is this their first time together, or has Véro been having an affair? By the way, does the cousin own the hotel? It does seem like a well-connected family. Anyway, did you notice how after the accident Véro basically doesn’t speak to anyone? Have you ever seen a movie in which the main character says so little? Even when the cousin, taking her home, asks whether he should drop her off on the corner or at the front door, she says only, “Bien.” Really Véro hardly says anything at all until one morning she says to her husband, “I killed someone on the road.”

My sister Lisa, who has a degree in clinical social work (as well as better Spanish than mine), mentioned that sometimes obsessive compulsives develop a nagging, incontrovertible delusion that they have committed a hit-and-run. It wasn’t all that uncommon a clinical condition, she said. And yet, she thought, if you believe you’ve run over someone when you haven’t, just who you think your victim is probably says something important about what’s really going on.

I had another idea. The discovery of the boy’s body in the culvert sets the men in Véro’s life into motion, erasing all traces of the accident. Her husband has the car repaired. Her brother removes her X-rays from the clinic where she’d gone, post-accident. Her powerful, adulterous, perhaps hotel-owning cousin must be the one who eliminates any record of her stay at the hotel. All of that now seems perfectly clear to me. But at the time I wondered whether the missing records—the entire campaign of erasure—didn’t mean the headless woman was herself some kind of ghost. Carry a cover-up too far and maybe you’d end up expunging your whole implicated existence.

Part of our puzzlement owed to imperfect Spanish and no subtitles. Not all of it, though, as other published discussions of The Headless Woman confirm. We were only sure that we’d seen a fascinating, original, disturbing film. Two years later I found I still couldn’t get it out of my head, and recently watched and re-watched it again.

The Headless Woman was released in the States last year to what they call mixed reviews. The mixture in this case was interesting. It’s not every movie about which the people who don’t like it complain not only I get it! I get it! and I don’t get it! but lodge both of these complaints at the same time, as several critics and many website commenters have done.

The charge of obviousness has to do with the stark class relationships on display. White and well-to-do Véronica fears she may have killed a dark-skinned poor person, and when the discovery of the boy’s body lends a new plausibility to the notion, her male relatives are in a position—a social position—to eliminate any potentially corroborating evidence. Thus, according to the New York Times, Véro’s “greater crime is being bourgeois.” Naturally the Times doesn’t consider this a very serious offense.

The charge of obscurity stems from Martel’s extremely economical story-telling. The close framing and shallow focus, the absence of expository dialogue of the usual kind, and of course the music-lessness all deprive the viewer of context, and together mimic the situation of a dazed, maybe concussed protagonist emerging into a world as thoroughly familiar to its other inhabitants as it’s become unfamiliar to her. Miss a clue, and you’ll lose some vital piece of information about the exact economic, familial, and sexual complexion of Véro’s intimate relationships. So that’s her niece, the teenage girl who has an intense lesbian crush on her? And she’s in practice, as a dentist, with her brother? But she is also clearly related, by blood, to her cousin’s (and/or brother in law’s) wife, since it seems to be their aunt who is dying and has lost her mind, no? The tangle of connections is all very incestuous, not for the first time in Martel’s work. But if Martel is confusing, it is out of precision rather than vagueness. Richard Brody’s complaint in the New Yorker that “the characters evaporate into symbols almost upon their appearance” suggests he could figure out the class relationships in the film, but not the private ones. For him, The Headless Woman was at once “heavy-handed” and “thinly realized.”

Any appreciation of the film in a way has to say the same thing. The Headless Woman does fuse the schematic and the intricate. But once you’ve granted Martel her brilliantly established premise and her fastidious approach, both the crude social schema and the delicate filigree of private relationships come to seem like features of the observable, inevitable world rather than impositions by the director. Indeed if you came upon your own life, one day, as a stranger, knowing who everyone was but not how to feel about them, surely this is how your life would look too, with the class structure in place almost unmentionably obvious, and the private relationships almost unspeakably complex. It might also prove a bit appalling if the people closest to you felt it wouldn’t offend you in the least for them to cover up the evidence of a crime you might have committed. What kind of person would you be, or in what kind of world, when they didn’t even need to ask?

For despite Véro’s angelic hairdo, reminiscent of Kim Novak’s in Vertigo, she appears to be suffering not from amnesia but from a kind of defamiliarization. Her bleached hair is the sign of this estrangement, a halo of otherworldliness. She must watch and wait before extracting a feeling, a judgment, a mood from the raw materials of a given scene. In other words, she’s in the same position as the viewer. Few films I’ve seen propose such a strict identity between the audience’s and the protagonist’s points of view. Equally few are at once so subjective (in the sense of adopting the protagonist’s point of view) and so objective (in the sense of refusing to comment on and contextualize the action that unfolds). This merger of subjective and objective is possible because Véro’s subjective state has become a sort of camera-like blank objectivity. In a rather amazing way, the limitations of so many films—their difficulty in conveying interior states except through the devices, both eschewed here, of voiceover and music—become a local means for transcending these limitations.

The special emotional eloquence of film lies in the actors’ faces (one reason why it’s frustrating when filmmakers pant after generically stunning young people). And the casting of María Onetto, in the role of headless woman and audience surrogate, was for this reason a real coup. The soft modeling of Onetto’s handsome face makes her look vulnerable, a bit pulpy and raw, undefined. The tentativeness and unconfessed bafflement, the expectation of protection, and the sheer and silent, supplicating grief in one of her half-smiles alone constitute a triumph of acting. The ideal star of the film, Onetto also does an excellent turn as a black hole. And this is how one comes to feel about the movie as a whole. How brilliant. How dark. How precise. How elusive. What quietness. What a howl of lamentation!

An allegorical premise at once obvious and obscure, a simultaneous proliferation of arguably pointless (but weirdly sexual) quotidian detail—there is something Kafka-like in this combination. And, as with Kafka, the choice here is either to multiply allegorical interpretations indefinitely, or just to throw up your hands and declare the whole thing a commentary on the absurdity and unknowability of life. The first option is the more interesting one.

It’s worth noting, with regard to the already highly allegorical Mujer sin cabeza, that the allure of allegorical interpretation becomes even more pronounced in the case of the so-called international art film. The reason for this is simply that a movie from Argentina or Senegal, or even Germany or China, will for most of its viewers be the only one from that country they see in a given year. This film then will then serve to represent Argentina (or Senegal, et cetera) as such, a condition of reception that also becomes a premise of artistic production. Few contemporary directors make such intensely local—in her case, salteña or Salta-centric—movies as Lucrecia Martel. Even so, she can’t help her movies being seen as “about Argentina,” and probably even intending them that way.

The first two allegorical notions to come to the minds of most English-language critics and commenters on The Headless Woman are the obvious ones, and not necessarily wrong for that. On the one hand, as people tended to note with a certain irritation, here is a movie about rich and poor set in a country, not so different from the US in this respect, in which class differences have acquired an allegorical starkness. Regardless of your views on economics (neoliberalism, Keynesianism, socialism—each is supposed to promote prosperity for all), extreme class differences, often aligned with differences of pigmentation, constitute a scandal throughout the Americas and the rest of the world. Everyone knows this, no matter who they vote for or which economists they pretend to understand. But the scandal of an aggravated class structure is too obvious and intractable to mention, and then, at length, even to notice. De eso no se trata—it isn’t discussed—would be the Argentine way of putting it. It might take bumping your head, or feeling a sharp stab of guilt where usually there’s at most a dull ache, to get you to truly see what you look at every day.

Probably everybody who saw The Headless Woman knows not only that class society exists, but that most Argentines averted their eyes during the late ‘70s when the ruling junta “disappeared” and tortured tens of thousands of civilians. So the film was sometimes also interpreted as a national allegory on willed forgetting or repressed guilt. (It’s a curious irony that people who are annoyed at anyone’s pointing out an obvious scandal, such as that of class society, in which we Americans are implicated, are often perfectly content to observe that other nations tend to ignore the manifest crimes going on in their midst. One evening in the middle of the Bush Administration, I watched Imagining Argentina—a solemn, mediocre British film on the dirty war of the ‘70s—with an American couple, one of whom afterwards exclaimed, “But how could they have let their government torture people and detain them without trial?”) In the unsettling mixture of possibilities that makes up The Headless Woman, a specifically Argentine guilt over the refusal to look back is a likely enough element. But what persists of that element, a residue of the ‘70s, has probably been compounded with confused national feelings of more recent vintage.

Eduardo Duhalde, a right-wing Peronist who stands a chance of winning the presidency next year, has taken to calling Argentina’s underfed and under-schooled poor children the country’s “new disappeared.” The expression, repugnant for its minimization of the fate of the old disappeared, still captures something of the national reality. Formerly the most egalitarian, the most middle-class society in Latin America, Argentina today, and especially since the 2001 crash, is more nearly two different and separate societies, often invisible to each another except on TV. Most well-to-do people never see the villas miserias, the tin-roofed slums of the poor, except when they pass by them on the highway, and private security guards keep the poor out of the gated countries—the English word is used—of the rich. This split is only the more pronounced in the Salta of La mujer sin cabeza. Like the other northern provinces, Salta is both poorer and more Indian than the most of the country. Already in the early eighteenth century, at a time when Buenos Aires was hardly more than a collection of mud dwellings, the Spanish had erected a splendid cathedral, in the city of Salta, on the backs on the native population. The area is still noted for its physical beauty, its pre-Colombian ruins, and the social and religious conservatism of its prominent families. So Martel’s allegory about capitalism and Argentina is probably one about Salta as well.

And yet there is another allegorical possibility inherent in La mujer sin cabeza that I haven’t seen addressed, in English or Spanish. Véro is picking up her cell phone when she hits something on the road. That much is clear. But who is calling? Understandably, given the circumstances, she doesn’t answer. But nor does she call whoever it was back. And twice more you see her answer the phone, evidently hear a voice, and immediately hang up without saying a word. None of the adults in the family complain about this, so she mustn’t have done it to them. The sole character to utter anything like a protest, however oblique, is Candita, her besotted lesbian niece. In one scene she tries to kiss Véro, obviously not for the first time, demands to know whether Véro likes her or not, and then petulantly declares, “Love letters are to be either answered or returned.” Later you see Véro and her niece talking together, clearly at the niece’s urgent insistence, but can’t hear what they’re saying. My own reading, not exclusive of any of the others, of this film written and directed by a woman whose other films also deal with lesbianism, is that Véro and her niece have been lovers, and that La mujer sin cabeza is therefore an allegory of, among other things, a love that dare not take the call. It can only have been Candita, I think, who was calling Véro when she ran over the dog and/or boy. Here, then, is a woman who, being who she is in the world, can neither confess what she might have done on the road, nor who she might be in bed. (Candita’s mother, you notice, is casually homophobic—and wouldn’t likely become less so if she found out her teenage daughter had slept with an older aunt.)

The richness and perturbation of the film derive, of course, not from any of these interpretations, but from its way of sponsoring all of them while at the same time confining itself to the strictest realism. The Headless Woman is an astonishing movie about an overdetermined and, in that way, highly life-like and familiar situation—at once very local, global, social, and sexual—in which something has gone badly wrong, and the wrongness is compounded by your inability to say exactly what. At first this silence is enforced by the confusion you share with the protagonist. Later on, for Véro, at any rate, the silence is imposed by the rules that define this or just about any other contemporary society. Eventually, she dyes her hair dark brown—no more its natural shade than the previous one—starts behaving normally again, and goes to a party with her husband. The end.

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