Thursday, June 10, 2010

The Virgin Is Dirty or: The Strange Case of 'The Headless Woman'

It occurs to me in retrospect that, of all the movies I saw in Montreal over the last few months, none of them--with perhaps the exceptions of Lars von Trier's Antichrist, Wes Anderson's Fantastic Mr. Fox, and Michael Haneke's The White Ribbon--needed to be seen more than once. Yes, I returned with pleasure to Noah Baumbach's Greenberg, Ethan and Joel Coen's A Serious Man (twice), Tom Ford's A Single Man, and Jacques Audiard's Un prophète, and look forward to revisiting Werner Herzog's The Bad Lieutenant—Port of Call: New Orleans, Bansky's Exit Through the Gift Shop, Roman Polanski's The Ghost Writer, Felix van Groenineg's The Misfortunates, and Lee Yoon-ki's My Dear Enemy when I get the chance. I'd even be willing to take another look at Martin Scorsese's Shutter Island just to see if my opinion of it improves on second viewing. But that said, all of those movies, and even Michael Powell and Emeric Pressburger's The Red Shoes, were designed to be understood and consumed in a single viewing.

I've seen Lucrecia Martel's The Headless Woman (2008) twice now, and though a second look was enormously beneficial, part of what's so exciting about this unclassifiable Argentinean oddity is that I still don't feel like I fully understand it. And given Martel's tendency to withhold exposition, which in all her films helps to foster a feeling of cozy intimacy between the characters (as if they've known each other a long time, and know more about one another than we can even imagine), and given how rooted all her films are in the day-to-day experience of life in Argentina (at one point, a character announces that the kids have hepatitis as casually as if it were chicken pox), it's unlikely that any viewer could feel as though they've exhausted the film's mysteries no matter how many times they see it, let alone some one such as myself who isn't familiar with the culture. I already can't wait to see it again.

The first time I saw the movie, it truly knocked me on my ass, throwing me into a maelstrom of disorientation, and then, once I started to find my bearings, undermining what little certainty I had. (If you thought Shutter Island was a mindfuck, wait until you see this.) The film opens with three peasant boys and a dog running on a dirt road. One of them falls into a canal by the side of the road and appears unable to get out. Cut to a group of middle-class ladies and some of their children getting into their cars in the aftermath of some unspecified social gathering. There's talk of a new swimming pool that's being built next to the animal hospital, and one of the women, Veró (María Onetto), is complimented on her blonde dye job. In the next scene, while driving down the dirt road and listening to a kitschy catchy pop song ("Soleil Soleil"), Veró is distracted by her cell phone and hits something with her car. In the rearview mirror, she sees the dog lying dead on the road. Veró gets out of her car, exiting the frame, and drops of rain begin accumulating on the car's windshield. The sequence ends with the film's title on a black background. Country vs. city; poor vs. rich; animals vs. people; and, as always with Martel, water water water.

Now here's where things get really crazy, as the film makes the viewer feel as disoriented as Veró is in the aftermath of the crash. After the title card, the next shot is of Veró being driven to the hospital, but because Martel isolates her in close-up and shallow focus, we don't know who's driving her, or for that matter, if this is Veró's car or some one else's. Of course, on second viewing, we know that the figure riding on a motorcycle alongside the car, in the background and out of focus, is likely Veró's niece's lesbian girlfriend, meaning that Veró's sister, Josefina (Claudia Cantero), is probably the one driving her. We've already glimpsed Josefina earlier in the parking lot, but her relationship to Veró hasn't yet been established. At the hospital, Veró is treated for a concussion, and when she's asked to write her name on a release form, she quietly slips away while the nurse isn't looking. However, this attempt at elusion (if it is that) is in vain as she's recognized as the wife of a doctor well known to the hospital staff.

Veró has a cab take her to a hotel, and there she falls asleep on top of the sheets with her shoes still on. Through the window in the background, we can see that it's daytime. In the next shot, a maid opens the door, and seeing Veró, apologizes and leaves. But when the film cuts back to Veró, it's now nighttime. Neat. In the next scene, Veró walks into the hotel restaurant and sits down, evidently oblivious that it's the middle of the night and the restaurant is closed. There, she runs into a man she knows, Juan Manuel (Daniel Genoud), or Juanma for short. They go back to her room and have sex, but Juanma is not her husband. When he drops her off the next morning, he asks Veró if she wants him to drop her at the door or down the street. Juanma may in fact be her cousin, but that's not clear. Earlier in the hotel room, he asks Veró if her Aunt Lala (María Vaner) has the same painting as the one on the wall.

The next few scenes show Veró trying to go about her daily routines while still in a daze. After Juanma drops her off at home, Veró's husband, Marcos (Cesar Bordón), is introduced in one of the film's most spatially disorienting shots. First, Marcos walks through the door holding something in a garbage bag (we later discover a dead dog), and exits the frame to the left, passing behind a staircase.

He then reappears reflected in a mirror on the far right side of the frame, walking into the kitchen. A few seconds later, we see Veró's feet reflected in the top section of the mirror as she descends the stairs.

Veró then reappears at the bottom of the stairs on the left side of the frame.

Veró turns and looks offscreen left into the kitchen. Reflected in the mirror, we see Marcos turn and see her.

Veró runs back upstairs, and Marcos follows her, exiting the field of the mirror and reappearing on the left side of the frame behind the stairs.

Upstairs, to hide from Marcos, Veró takes a shower with her clothes still on. (Marcos, at this point, doesn't know that Veró has had an accident, as due to the storm, he didn't come home the previous night either.) After her shower, Veró goes downstairs to find the dead dog on the kitchen counter, which it appears Marcos brought home to eat. He takes the dog into the backyard, and the maid asks him if he wants her to skin it.

In the next scene, Veró walks into a dentist's office and sits down in the waiting room; the secretary has to remind her that she's the dentist. Later, when the secretary presents her with a wrapped present, Veró thinks it's for her until the secretary reminds her that she asked her to pick it up for Aunt Lala. It just occurred to me as I was writing this that Veró might be suffering from amnesia, rather than simple befuddlement. That would explain why she doesn't write her name on the release form (because she doesn't remember it); why she goes to a hotel instead of straight home (because she doesn't know where home is); why she tries to hide from Marcos (because she doesn't know who he is); and why, when Josefina prompts her to remind Aunt Lala of certain facts, Veró doesn't answer, waiting instead for Josefina to say something. It would also explain the film's title.

However, about midway through the film, something happens to jog Veró's memory. As she walks around a park, we hear a loud thump off camera. The next shot shows an injured boy lying on the ground. Offscreen, we hear a dog barking, reminding us of the one Veró hit. She goes into the washroom and cries, and in the next scene, tells Marcos that she killed some one with her car.

Marcos tries to convince Veró that she's just imagining things, driving her out to the site of the accident, and then calling Juanma, who would know if some one had been killed the weekend of the big storm. However, it soon becomes apparent that some one did die along the dirt road that weekend. On an outing with Josefina and her children, Veró sees that the canal is flooded, as often happens when a dead animal gets stuck in the pipes. Later, Veró goes to pick up some pots at the nursery for her garden, and she learns that one of the boys who works there hasn't been showing up since the night of the storm. Eventually, his body is found in the canal. In the paper it says he drowned, but Josefina's daughter, Candita (Inés Efron), mentions offhandedly that he was murdered. Just to be safe, Marcos has the car repaired, and Veró's brother, Marcelo (Guillermo Arengo), steals her x-rays from the hospital, so that there's no evidence of Veró being in an accident.

Meanwhile, Veró--having mentioned earlier that she's been colouring her hair so long that she no longer recalls her natural colour--dyes her hair brown, and acts extra nice to the peasant boy who comes by regularly to wash her car, giving him some old t-shirts and offering to let him take a shower in the maid's bathroom. In other words, just as Veró choses her hair colour, she makes a conscious choice to remember hitting the boy with her car (whether she did or not). Likewise, Marcos and Marcelo make a decision to forget it ever happened. In the final sequence, Veró returns to the hotel where she slept with Juanma, and is told by the woman at the desk that room 818 was unoccupied the weekend of the storm, further undermining our certainty about what happened.

The cinematic apparatus is set up to ensure a constant product flow (movies magically appear at the multiplex, and after a few weeks, new ones materialize to take their place), and reviewers are part of that system whether they like it or not. With new films opening every week, the vast majority of them McMovies designed for easy consumption, reviewers usually only see a movie once before writing about it. So a film like The Headless Woman, which needs to be seen at least twice, gets in the way of business as usual. Although Pauline Kael's refusal to ever watch a movie more than once is an extreme case (I wonder what she'd say about Film Socialisme [2010] if she were alive), reviewers have to speak from a position of relative certainty to be able to do their jobs at all. Therefore, it's cheering on the one hand that the reviews for Martel's film in the American press have been largely appreciative (though if memory serves, wasn't it booed at Cannes?); however, it's hardly surprising on the other to come across Andy Klien's hostile dismissal in The Christian Science Monitor, in which he writes, "The disjointedness of The Headless Woman might be the result of narrative complexity or of directorial ineptitude or (my favorite) of narrative complexity mangled by directorial ineptitude." The possibility that the film might be so disorienting on purpose, or that it might require a second viewing, doesn't appear to have occurred to him. And certainly both possibilities are perversely contrary to the business as usual of movies designed to be understood immediately by everyone. In this context, a film like The Headless Woman is nothing short of a political act.

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