Keswick Film Club - Reviews - The Headless Woman

Reviews - The Headless Woman

The Headless Woman

Reviewed By John Stakes

The Headless Woman
The Headless Woman
Research reveals that Argentine cinema produced a comic horror film in 1947 titled “The Headless Woman” set in a haunted house, so was last Sunday’s 2007 Argentine offering by the same name a remake perhaps?

The heroine in the 2007 film by 44 years old and largely self-taught director Lucrecia Martel was also haunted, but mainly by her own and not external demons and here any comparison ends. This was the last in a trilogy of Argentine films and a completely different oeuvre from last Sunday’s overworked plot twister.

Martel’s film appears to be a study in mental frailty and stars Marion Onetto as Veronica, a woman who has run over something in the road whilst driving home. Was it just a dog? We are shown only a dog. Veronica decides to drive on making no attempt to discover the truth and thereby sets the tone of the film which, at first glance, raises far more questions than it attempts to answer. At this point this reviewer was reminded of a recent American novel which was composed entirely of questions!!

Was this to be the cinematic equivalent?

Martel’s directorial technique (she also wrote the screenplay) is to present Veronica’s troubled life in a deliberately oblique way and her sparse dialogue tantalisingly (some may say frustratingly) reveals little. As Martel’s camera relentlessly focuses on Veronica in close-up (reflecting the claustrophobic effect of her trauma), casual conversation around her seems unrelated to her. Veronica’s aunt (who suffers from Alzheimer’s disease) is introduced early on to flag up Veronica’s disorientation. Practically nothing is known of Veronica’s life before the accident save that her husband says he has been trying to get her to rest for several weeks. So it’s rather like looking at the loose pieces of a jigsaw puzzle to work out what is happening in reality. Veronica appears not to recognise her neighbours and friends. Is she suffering from amnesia? She is obviously in shock as she appears not to realise when she is in the waiting room of her own dental surgery and signs the name of the member of staff of the X-ray unit when asked to identify herself. We are made to feel no less disorientated. But what lies behind her calculated decision to drive on after the accident without looking to see precisely what she’s done? Why cannot she relate to events around her? Does the film’s title indicate that Veronica’s fate is to end up in Epping Forest perhaps?!

In this reviewer’s household we concluded that what lies beneath is the age-old story of infidelity. Veronica is having an affair with her brother-in-law whom she meets every week in a hotel in the nearby town. Having done a school run she is driving to meet him when she is involved in a car accident in which a local youth and his dog are killed. Initially she tells her family she has killed a dog but later confesses to her husband that she also killed the lad (there were two distinct bumps).

The husband drives her to the scene of the accident to find only the dog and tries to persuade her she must have been mistaken. But the youth’s body (which has fallen into the canal below the road) is later discovered when it blocks a sewer following a rainstorm and the story becomes headline news in the local paper.

As Veronica belongs to the relatively wealthy middle class of Argentine society anxious never to lose face, and the deceased was from a lower class, her husband decides not to report the incident and does a DIY repair to her car himself or through a friend. He appears to be unaware of his wife’s affair. Quite separately the brother-in-law pays the local hotelier to cook his register so that Veronica’s clandestine meetings with him do not come out into the open.

Veronica has been the only person to acknowledge the enormity of her culpability but those in the know amongst her family and friends choose to ignore her and hide the truth to preserve their social status. By the time Veronica emerges from her temporary loss of memory (and the possibility that she exploits it cannot be ruled out) the cover-up is complete and she returns to the bosom of her hypocritical social circle which meets regularly at the local hotel. At their next gathering the manager makes his excuses and leaves the reception area to avoid embarrassing anyone. Veronica changes from blonde to brunette (washing out her guilt?) so as to distance herself from the woman involved in the accident and create a new image for herself.

This is one of those initially infuriating films which demands total concentration and a willingness to invest enough energy and curiosity to decipher what is going on. Martel throws down the challenge. This slow-paced thriller without thrills intrigues but does not elicit fascination. Martel makes sure we remain a detached observer the better to gain understanding perhaps. There is nothing in Onetto’s performance to give anything away: she is inscrutable throughout. Only on later reflection does the film’s constructive quality emerge and Martel is revealed as a rather clever filmmaker... perhaps a bit too clever.

Her film has enjoyed world-wide success and was a competition entry in the 2008 Cannes Film Festival. Martel was clearly in total command of her material and knew exactly what she was doing. Perhaps she should be invited to the Club’s 2011 Film Festival to explain her somewhat oblique and obscurant style and limit our future head-scratching!

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