The Headless Woman (La mujer sin cabeza) (2008)

The Headless Woman (La mujer sin cabeza) first published by EyeforFilm

“Don’t worry. Nothing happened.” 

So says Juan Manuel (Daniel Genoud) after his cousin Véronica (María Onetto) has declared her conviction that she has struck and possibly killed a boy while out driving by a canal. By this point, about halfway through The Headless Woman (La mujer sin cabeza), more impatient viewers may well be wishing that something – anything – concrete would happen in Lucrecia Martel’s elliptical, enigmatic film. Far more important, though, than the question of what did (or did not) happen out on the road is the bald fact of Juan Manuel’s denial – a denial rendered all the more nuanced when one recalls that its speaker has also recently had furtive hotel sex with the married Véronica, whose husband Marcos (César Bordón) is present and within earshot as the words ‘nothing happened’ are uttered. 

Denial, the burying of compromising evidence, and a self-defensive amnesia, come naturally to the privileged, seemingly carefree Argentinians of The Headless Woman. They are attitudes epitomised by the trauma-induced breakdown which Véronica suffers immediately after her accident, making her temporarily lose all sense of who she is, where she lives, what she does, even who she knows. Once she has recovered her memory and sense of self, she realises with increasing horror that it may not have been just a dog that her car hit, but by then the menfolk in her extended family have already begun closing ranks and making the incident, or at least all traces of Véronica’s involvement in it, vanish.

Indeed, this is something which Martel’s sinuous direction achieves right from the start, as the details of what is happening are kept off screen and out of sight – if not quite out of mind – by the restrictive framing of her long, seemingly bland takes. Here, we are always aware that we are not getting the full picture, as Martel expertly compounds ambiguities without ever abandoning the apparent naturalism of her presentation. What we do get constantly to witness, however, is the finely observed relationship of distance between Véronica’s incestuous social élite and the less moneyed folk who clean and cook for them, answer their phones, tend their gardens, wash their cars, and might, in one way or another, be their victims. Like the boy whom Véronica may or may not have run over, these are the people who remain largely on the margins – either seen through windows or kept entirely out of shot – but whose ghostly presence continues to haunt the film. 

“The house is full of them,” Véro’s batty Aunt Lala (María Vaner) declares in one scene. “Shh! The dead! They’re leaving now. Don’t look at them. Ignore them and they’ll leave.” And as she speaks, in a moment where magic and realism collide head-on, we see the blurry silhouette of a small boy, not unlike the one at the canal the day of Véronica’s accident, heading out the door. For a fleeting moment, before we realize that the boy is the son of one of the servants, it is as though the dead have truly risen to confront the living with their crimes, only to be ignored and so, as Lala suggests, to depart, once more swept under the carpet. Coming from a country still very much haunted by the legacy of ‘the disappeared’, Martel’s film of social divisions and collective forgetfulness is her most overtly political effort yet. 

Martel’s thematic/visual obsession with water and pools, carried over from her earlier features La Ciénaga (2001) and La Niña Santa (2004), is allowed to flow in full here. Véronica’s manicured garden conceals, according to the hired help, a kind of buried fountain or pool – and the same downpour of rain in a storm that one character describes as “a blessing” for Véronica’s manicured coiffure is a cause of flooding and widespread misery for others. Meanwhile the water from a hotel room tap is stained with rust, a canal becomes blocked by a corpse, and pampered ladies worry that a new public (albeit exclusive) pool may be over-chlorinated or even overrun by turtles from the vet’s next door. Nothing, it seems, frightens Véronica and her wealthy set more than contact with impurity, while they remain willfully oblivious to their own flaws, taints and contagion. 

Its title might suggest a gory horror B-flick, but here the horror is all in the head, as truth (embodied in Véronica’s nickname Véro) becomes a casualty to the expedience of the averted eye, and harsh realities are covered over as easily as the protagonist’s greyness of hair is concealed with yellow dye. In the end, Véronica’s only concession to the ‘nothing’ that has happened is to change her hair to a darker colour – although, as she insists, “not too dark”. What, however, remains hidden, suppressed or disavowed beneath the plain style and unfussy takes of The Headless Woman proves to be darker than she might like. 

© Anton Bitel