"Headless Woman" at Film Series
The Argentine movie, "The Headless Woman," produced by the great Spanish director Pedro Almadovar, is the latest in the Martha's Vineyard Film Society's offerings. It is a horror film, but just not in the generically clichéd ways you might think.
The title mimics that of a 1947 Argentine film that parodied the horror genre. That throwaway bit of information is helpful only because it suggests the subtle ways in which writer/director Lucrecia Martel, who also made "The Holy Girl," offers the audience clues to what is going on in the life of Veronica, nicknamed Vero, a dentist with a practice in a rural town.
Nominated for a Palme d'Or at Cannes in 2008, "The Headless Woman" opens with four poor boys and their dog playing near an open canal. Vero drives by and, distracted by her cell phone, hits something. Horrified and disoriented, she's not sure what she hit but drives on.
In cinema vérité style, the director does not telegraph information about the movie's characters and events but lets them emerge naturally from context. The first real clue to what the movie is about is that Vero is the only person in the film with blonde, albeit bleached, hair. Once the accident occurs, a dusty pair of handprints on the driver's window offers another clue.
"The Headless Woman" demands patience from the audience because it throws the viewer into the middle of an unfamiliar world. For American audiences it will be doubly unfamiliar because the viewer must negotiate the customs of another culture on top of the mystery of what really happened to Vero.
Because she hit her head on the steering wheel when the accident occurred, Vero takes herself to the local emergency room for an x-ray. Then she leaves before getting the results and goes to a local hotel, where she has passionate sex with an unidentified man.
Even though she seems to be sleepwalking through it, Vero's life goes on. Her husband comes home, and a nurse, who recognized her at the emergency room, calls to say she left her car keys behind. Other activities take place; people come and go.
By approaching events the way she does and forcing the audience to piece together what is happening, Ms. Martel succeeds in exposing the underside of a society that has much to hide. Some critics have suggested that "The Headless Woman" indicts Argentines because of their refusal to deal with a past of dictatorship and murdered dissidents. Others have likened it to Antonioni's classic, "L'Aventurra."
The most compelling interpretation for non-Argentine audiences is that Ms. Martel has revealed the noxious ways in which a powerful, complacent middle-class society exploits and ignores the inferiors who work in it.
Maria Onetto gives a powerful performance as Vero. While she initially tries to avoid her growing recognition of what really happened, she gradually comes to terms with it.
But the members of her family, in particular the men, close around her to protect her.
Life goes on, or does it? The audience must put the clues together and decide for itself. In the meantime, "The Headless Woman" holds a mirror up to a disturbingly flawed world.
"The Headless Woman," Friday, Oct. 2, 7:30 pm, Katharine Cornell Theatre, Vineyard Haven. Tickets $8 (MV Society members $5). Doors open at 7 pm. Call 774-392-2972 or go to mvfilmsociety.com.
Brooks Robards regularly writes on films, books and art for The Times.