Thursday, 20 October 2016

Lucrecia Martel's "The Headless Woman" – Don't phone and drive

Still reeling from having my Hollywood expectations shattered from Claire Denis’s White Material I now stagger into another mind-blowing film from the BBC’s list of the 21st Century’s 100 Greatest Films: Lucrecia Martel’s The Headless Woman.

Not everyone will like it because a lot of the time you’re not really sure what’s going on.  But at the end of the film I was left with a clear idea, if not of what had precisely happened, at least of the range of possibilities of what had happened. Which is fair enough, given that the characters don't know precisely what happened either.


Novelists such as Don DeLillo and Ian McEwan, influenced perhaps by university English degrees and literary theory, delight in constructing fictional scenarios to demonstrate that life is not always best summarised by the rational 'single right answer' approach of science.  There can be multiple interpretations of reality, each with an equal claim to validity. A similar artistic desire is at work in this film.

An early example is the overlapping, irrational, unintelligible babble of conversation between friends and their children as they prepare for a car journey. This is an alternative reality that defies rational sense, and yet one that rings true to life and one that the characters are delighted to inhabit. Don DeLillo nailed this kind of bonkers family car talk in his novel 'White Noise,' where factually incorrect statements, irrelevant comments, in-jokes etc are all bundled up and, taken together, form a meaningful reality for that family.

As well as the dialogue we get a similar ambiguity with a handprint on the car window of the lead character, Vero.  We see the handprint being left by a child in that flurry of exchanges between the friends but later it causes doubt in Vero's and the audience's mind after a possible hit and run accident.

Did she hit a dog, a boy or both? We don't know and she doesn't know. There was a dog and boy apparently present at the scene, and a boy is also shown momentarily stuck in an empty canal, ahead of a heavy storm. He could have drowned because he was trapped, or he could have been knocked in by Vero's car.

Review continues below...

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The subsequent cover-up by Vero's menfolk also leads to a rewriting of reality, such as her hotel booking and X-rays from the time of the accident being erased.

And in an Ian McEwen style take on alterative realities, Vero has suffered from possible concussion or at least mental shock, which distorts the way she perceives the world, and the way we perceive it through her point of view.

Combine all this with an intentionally anachronistic mix of Seventies music and hairstyles with modern phones and cars and you have yet another artificially created reality.
The framing and composition of the camera shots also enhances the feeling of ambiguity. A frequent device is a vertical line that blocks part of the screen from top to bottom – an out of focus building column or a crack between glass doors, for example – that seems to echo the characters' incomplete view of what is going on.

There are two big themes of guilt and class divide.  Towards the end, Vero heaps kindness on a local boy who begs for money in exchange for chores in a guilt transference from her supposed road victim.  It’s a nice touch that – perhaps sensing that Vero’s state of mind is uncharacteristic and temporary – the boy gruffly declines her offers of food and a bath, as though to accept them would endanger his future visits to this affluent household.

Personal Score: 7/10

This is part of a series of film reviews where I give my comments on the BBC's Top 21st Century films as a writer. The idea is that over time these posts will build into a wide-ranging writing resource.

For more details about the approach I've taken, including some important points about its strengths and weaknesses (I make no claims about my abilities as a film critic or even the accuracy of my comments... but I do stand by the value of a writer's notes on interesting films), see my introductory post here.

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