Where do I start with The Headless Woman (La mujer sin cabeza)? This was an extraordinarily strange film and I am really not sure what to make of it. I certainly don’t know how to make sense of what this film is about or what it was trying to say, but I certainly do think it was one of the most bizarre cinematic experiences I’ve ever had. This bewilderment I feel towards this film is certainly not an attempt to say this is a bad film, because it is quite the opposite – it is a pretty audacious film.
The Headless Woman is about Vero (Maria Onetto), a middle-aged dentist happy with her middle-class existence in contemporary Argentina. One afternoon, while driving through the rural part of the country, she hits and kills something with her car. Terrified of the idea of getting out and determining what she hit, she simply drives away, and over the next few days descends into mental anxiety, hurting herself with the guilt – she wants to believe that she hit a dog, but it is more than likely that she hit a young boy. She and her friends attempt to cover up her tracks, but that doesn’t excuse Vero from becoming a shadow of her former self – the uncertainty of what happened mentally destroys her, and she doesn’t know how to fix what she did.
Maria Onetto gives a terrifyingly real performance as Vero. She is just a normal woman with a priviledged life, who makes a dreadful mistake she will likely regret for the rest of her life. Onetto is really the only performance worth mentioning, because while there are some other very impressive performances in this film, the characters just come and go without staying for very long or making much of an impact. Onetto’s central performance is startlingly good, and she grounds this film. Her descent into madness, and transformation into the metaphoric and titular character is a miracle of acting.
Lucrecia Martel is somewhat of a revelation in modern filmmaking. Three of her films, including The Headless Woman, are impressive and influential pieces of South American filmmaking, and she has received an abundance of acclaim for her visionary skills behind the camera. The Headless Woman is something else though – it takes Martel to a place where the smallest nuances of filmmaking make an enormous difference. The Headless Woman is a difficult film to watch because of its complexity, but it is an even more difficult film to make, I’m sure. Martel is an extraordinary filmmaker and I can’t wait to really explore her work in a lot more depth. I have heard Martel compared to several other filmmakers, but one that I think does fit her is the comparisons to Alfred Hitchcock – The Headless Woman shows Martel taking the concept of paranoia and fear, that was present in many of Hitchcock’s films, and isolating them to this particular theme. The Headless Woman is also unabashedly Kafka-esque in how it represents paranoia, and it even touches on the idea of an unforgiving bureaucracy.
Like many great South American films, The Headless Woman is primarily a film about class conflict and inequality. I won’t get too into detail about what this film says, but I will say that the idea of class difference forms a very uncomfortable framing device for this film. It may not be overt and predominant, but it is present throughout, and incredibly heartbreaking. The Headless Woman is a film that doesn’t show as much as many other films, so a lot of interpretation is left for the viewer.
A warning – The Headless Woman is an unbelievably slow film. It is only 87 minutes long, but it feels very dragged out. Honestly, The Headless Woman could’ve easily been a 20-minute long short film. But then again, that wasn’t the point – the growing fear and paranoia that distinguishes this film was only possible through the slow-burning tone of this film. It is an unforgivingly paced film, and it may alienate viewers that are looking for something a bit more exciting. The film may be slow, but it builds to an extraordinary ending that will hit you like a ton of bricks emotionally.
The Headless Woman is a very well-made film. Beautifully shot, with distinctive sound editing (it makes a huge difference, trust me), and a remarkable lead performance from Maria Onetto. It is a strange film, and I don’t expect it to be the most beloved film by a lot of people. However, it is still a brutally heartbreaking and mysteriously complex piece of art cinema that left me reeling with its abundance of emotion. All I have to say is that Lucrecia Martel is an absolute genius. Watch this film and I dare you not to agree with me.