Aug 19, 2009
NYFF: The Headless Woman
It's official: Lucrecia Martel is my current favorite filmmaker.
She is a talent to behold. If you haven't, you need to see her first and best movie, La ciénaga (The Swamp). Then you see her second film, La niña santa (The Holy Girl) and then you see her latest, La mujer sin cabeza.
My expectations were lowish because I had heard it wasn't as good as her other two films. Well, I loved it. I loved every second of it.
Martel is a truly original filmmaker, with a style and a point of view all her own. She explores the social and family dynamics of people who live in the province of Salta, Argentina, but it's the way she does it that is totally different from anything you've ever seen. In Spanish literature there is a genre called costumbrismo, and I guess the closest equivalent in English would be the "comedy of manners", except that costumbrismo is not always necessarily a comedy. Martel's films are a most original, modern, fiercely intelligent example of costumbrismo.
In her movies, the frame is always full of people, people who don't really like each other but who are almost on top of each other all the time. Families stick together like molasses. Everybody talks at the same time, mothers are exasperated with their children, relatives say horrible things to one another, and volumes are also left unsaid. As in all her movies, this is a film about the inequalities in Argentine society, particularly in the provinces, where the differences between the middle class and the poor are very noticeable, mainly because there is close cohabitation between them. Servants live in the homes of their employers. There is a strange symbiosis between people. In Martel's films I feel like being in biology class dissecting frogs, when in fact it's humans and their customs and behaviors we are asked to observe.
Her films don't remind me of anybody else's films. Sure, you could say that her jaundiced view of family and society may recall Luis Buñuel's, but Martel is a much more technically accomplished filmmaker. Her films are strangely, oppressively gorgeous. She creates an atmosphere that feels incestuous and sticky and she does this with great aesthetic discipline. In The Headless Woman, she shoots everything at very close range, with all the focus on the foreground. There are almost no wide shots in this film (I recommend you sit towards the back of the theater). This creates a very claustrophobic feeling and it is very disquieting, as if the world outside one's body is fuzzy. Martel sticks to this choice and it works, for this is a movie about a woman who loses her head. She has a car accident and she becomes disoriented, forgetful and confused. However, we don't really know if she was already like that, or if the accident triggers a response in her that is bigger than the incident itself. For a while we don't know if she is imagining stuff. Martel leaves enormous spaces open to interpretation, but these are not arbitrary or manipulative, because she gives you enough clues to solve the puzzle in a logical, organic, coherent way. In the end, everything makes sense in this world that is strange and banal at the same time. You can fill in the blanks of this woman's life by the incredibly observed details that Martel hands out with delicate, powerful brush strokes, among them dialog that is sharp and revelatory, and totally natural and an incredible ensemble of actors.
If you take the basic plot of this movie, (a woman is involved in a car accident; she is disoriented, then there is a coverup), you would never imagine the kind of richly layered physical, psychic and political space that Martel creates out of such an incident. The story is very intimate, but it also reverberates beyond the confines of the characters' lives. It makes me think about what happened in Argentina during the military dictatorship where murders and disappearances were covered up for years. The clique of those in power is all about protecting themselves no matter what. If somebody loses their head, questions their actions, misses their place in the established order, the clique, acting instinctively like a silent organism will make sure everything remains the same.
My friend Katya was saying Martel is the most interesting filmmaker out of Latin America. I think she is one of the most brilliant filmmakers in the world today.