Marsa Onetto in THE HEADLESS WOMAN, directed by Lucrecia Martel. Photo credit: Strand Releasing.
Filmmaker Lucrecia Martel has often been compared to David Lynch, but where Lynch’s films give off the rank smell of a decaying swamp (with who knows what sunk to the bottom), Martel’s new film reminds me of the arid beauty of a bone left in the sun. I admit that her work inspires me to purple prose—it’s hard to describe something that evokes rather than illustrates, and the moodiness of The Headless Woman left me with an inarticulate unease.
The Headless Woman, Martel’s third feature, tells the story of a bourgeois Latin American woman named Vero who is so out of touch with her emotions it seems like she’s living someone else’s life. One afternoon Vero (played with a chilly perfection by Maria Onetto) runs over something with her car. Is it a dog? A boy? Vero gets out of her car to check but the viewer never has a clear shot. Later, in a sentient moment, Vero tries to convince her husband and cousin Juan Manuel that she hit a boy from the slums with her car, but they talk her out of it. Her husband drives past the spot, “It’s just a dog,” he says, though we never see for sure.
Martel explains that the film was born “out of the vapors” of a conversation she overheard while traveling. A woman was telling her friend that she killed people in her dreams. One night she dreamed she killed a man and didn’t know what to do with the head, so she put it on her shelf and went out. When she returned the head was gone and in its place was a note from her father: I cleaned up your shelf. She woke thinking what a wonderful supportive family she had. Another night she dreamed she found a black woman’s hand in her purse. It must have been the maid, she tells her friend. When the friend asks if she ever cries for the people she kills, she’s confounded: Why should she? They don’t mean anything to her.
Although I missed The Headless Woman at the 2008 Sundance Festival, I watched a screener of it on a greyhound bus on my way to New Mexico. The film begins with a flood, but the bleak emotional landscape seemed as dry as the desert outside.