One of the thoughts I had several times while watching Lucrecia Martel's film, and even more afterwards, was how interesting it would be to be thrown into a film, or a novel, without any preconceptions whatsoever. Without knowing the title, the author or director, the country of origin, the time it was written/produced - nothing. Without preconceptions of any kind, one has to approach a work in complete honesty, unbiased and unaware of how one is "supposed" to experience it, how much one is "supposed" to like or dislike it. Of course many of us have that goal when we start a film or a book, but it's rare that we can really come close to achieving it; if we've seen an Orson Welles film before, and we're going to watch one now, we can't help but bring something to the table. In the case of this film, I knew very little about it before watching, other than that the director was a woman, it was from Argentina (a country from which I've seen one other film, which was made over 50 years ago), it was quite recent, and it had a good reputation. I had read no reviews, and little discussion of it, and I didn't know anything about the plot, and as it turns out, that was all especially to the advantage of the film as it is a film of unease, of dissassociation and disconnection, and it offers no easy answers and few clues as to its methods or direction.
There's a brief prologue in which we see three young dark-skinned boys playing by the side of a road and canal, with a dog. Then a middle-aged woman, leaving a group of adults and kids, and getting in her car. She drives along the same road and canal that we saw in the first scene; her phone rings, and she fumbles for it, swerving and hitting something. She drives on, not stopping, seeing a large shape in her rear view mirror. A dog? Or something else? Eventually she stops, it begins to rain, and she gets out of the car to look at the possible damage. All of this is encompassed in one shot, and we can see that even at the moment of impact, there is something not right here, the reaction of the woman, Vero (Maria Onetto) is very subdued, almost to the point of dismissal or refusal. A minor annoyance that she wants to do away with. There are fingerprints on her window, but whether they were there before, she and we cannot say for sure.
She goes to a hospital to get x-rayed; she seems unhurt. She takes her car to a garage; she goes to a hotel. She is distracted and seems not to be paying attention to much of anything. A man comes to the hotel - she grabs him fiercely, starts to pull his clothes off in powerful need. He is her cousin, we learn later. Eventually she ends up at home; it is a comfortable, large bourgeois home and she has an Indian maid and a gardener. She goes to the dentist's office, taking a cab; once there she sits down as if to wait, but then we find out - as she does, to her brief amazement - that she is the dentist. She goes home; her husband, who is her partner, takes her patients. Eventually she mentions to her husband that she hit a dog, but she remains unsure, and her sense of discomfort with the accident, and with herself, continues to grow. She goes to visit her mother who is in a nursing facility and has Alzheimers or some other memory loss; significantly neither Vero nor her family members seem to make the connection between her mother's mental problems and her own, though there is a fascinating identical bit involving first Vero, and later her mother, worrying about their "filthy" hair.
The disconnection in THE HEADLESS WOMAN involves not only Vero's personal story with the dog, or boy, that she may have hit, but also in her growing dissassociation with all of those around her, and by implication a realization that her life as an upper-class woman of mostly European origin sets her apart from her servants, clients, perhaps even her family, none of whom looks as pale or Old World in complexion. Late in the film she decides to die her hair; she had been the only blonde character in the film, and she dies her hair almost jet black. Her sister asks a strange question - if that's her natural color - and Vero answers that she thinks it was, but it's all gray now. But she can't seem to come to terms with what has happened, and this leads to a further and further drifting from her own world - but never towards the worlds of the lower classes, the indigenous natives, of guilt, of understanding what she may have done.
It's a very strong film, and the Cinemascope framing and regular use of rain and glass, of doors and windows bisecting the frame help to give us clues throughout that something is amiss, though we can never be much more certain than Vero as to what the problem really is. Did she not stop because she is so self-absorbed that the possiblity of killing someone else just didn't matter? Is it that she wasn't worried because the only people out in this area were lower-class Indians, who she feels separated from and superior to? Is she dealing with the onset of Alzheimers herself, and afraid to admit to or deal with that possibility, seeing what is happening to her mother? We don't know, we are left as in the dark as Vero, and this film as much as any I've seen really communicates that sense of isolation that a person can feel when they feel a loss of mental faculties and emotional stability, but aren't ready to admit or deal with it in any way. If I don't quite LOVE the film, it's I suppose because I'm not sure how to feel either, and I guess for once I would have appreciated just a little more grounding. But I suspect that another viewing will take care of some of my issues.
Maria Onetto has an extraordinarily difficult task - playing a woman cut off from herself and everyone whose occasional slips of emotion and self-awareness have to seem inexplicable, even random - and she carries it off brilliantly, always the center of our attention even though she is losing herself and fading away. The rest of the cast is quite fine as well but the film is really entirely hers; I should also mention the exceptional naturalistic cinematography of Bárbara Álvarez who accomplishes some real miracles with rain and with light distortion and soft focus in parts of the frame at various times which helps to indicate Vero's disconnect from everything and everyone around her. It's all quite subtle - perhaps at times a little too subtle - but I think it will be quite rewarding for the patient. I'll definitely be checking out Ms. Martel's earlier films.