Controversy at Cannes: The Headless Woman 

And a lot of big heads too

Wednesday, May 28 2008

“I feel a little ... I don’t feel good.” So says Veronica, the middle-aged upper-middle-class Argentinean woman who suffers a nasty bump on the noggin early on in Lucrecia Martel’s The Headless Woman (La Mujer Sin Cabeza) and spends the rest of the movie in a semiconscious stupor, a stranger in her own body. Watching Martel’s film, which premiered midway through the 61st Cannes Film Festival, it occurred to me that Veronica’s woozy disorientation was a pretty apt metaphor for Cannes itself, where one can reliably emerge from seeing a near masterpiece only to discover that everyone — or at least the influential industry trade newspapers — has declared the very same movie une catastrophe! That was certainly the case with The Headless Woman, which was the first (though hardly the last) of this year’s competition entries to be greeted with lusty boos at the end of its press screening, putting it in such esteemed past Cannes company as Michelangelo Antonioni’s L’Avventura and David Cronenberg’s Crash. (In one of those rare alliances of Franco and Anglo sentiments, Martel’s film spent most of Cannes scraping bottom in the daily critics’ polls conducted by the British trade paper Screen International and its Gallic counterpart, Le Film Français.)

Courtesy Cannes Film Festival

Mind games: Lucrecia Martel's Headless Woman

Charlie Kaufman's Synecdoche, New York

Martel’s movie — one of the strongest of a very strong festival — opens on a windy stretch of road, where Veronica runs over something with her car, bangs her head on the steering wheel, then drives on a bit farther before pulling over and staggering out into the first drops of a massive rainstorm. From there on, The Headless Woman exists in a concussive state, showing us the world through its protagonist’s highly unreliable eyes as she returns to her everyday routine, not quite sure of where she is or what she’s doing there, and beset by the nagging sensation that what she hit on the road may not have been canine after all. Like Martel’s first two features, La Ciénaga and The Holy Girl, this one is another merciless portrait of self-satisfied stagnation among the privileged elite; the movie’s running joke (admittedly a mordant one) is that Veronica’s family and friends keep assuring her that everything is perfectly fine, even as it becomes obvious that it most certainly is not.

Shooting for the first time in wide screen, Martel effects a sense of spatial and temporal dislocation that is close to the phantasmagoric subconsciousness of a David Lynch or Luis Buñuel. As she films her saucer-eyed, peroxide-blond leading lady (Maria Onetto) from a distance, in and out of focus, reflected in glass, we too begin to feel that we aren’t quite ourselves, that we are sharing in Veronica’s dark, private, waking dream. Most critics, though, were too busy complaining about being confused by the film to realize that this was exactly the point.

click to flip through (2) COURTESY CANNES FILM FESTIVAL - Mind games: Lucrecia Martel's Headless Woman
  • Courtesy Cannes Film Festival
  • Mind games: Lucrecia Martel's Headless Woman

Another head-trip movie, greeted with only slightly less venom, was Being John Malkovich and Adaptation screenwriter Charlie Kaufman’s directorial debut, Synecdoche, New York, which stars the redoubtable Philip Seymour Hoffman as a theater director staging a magnum autobiographical opus — a literal Living Theater — inside a cavernous warehouse space. When I interviewed Kaufman a few years ago, around the time of the Oscar-winning Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind, he told me with palpable gravity that he feared he had run dry as a writer, and this deeply personal movie about the fear of death — creatively and physically. Kaufman lacks the peppy visual direction and snappy pacing of a Spike Jonze or Michel Gondry, but I nevertheless enjoyed Synecdoche, New York for its uniquely jaundiced view of the attempt to bring meaning to one’s life through art, and I’d wager that the film will look even better a few months from now, seen apart from the hothouse atmosphere of the world’s most prestigious (but also impatient) film festival.

This is Cannes, after all, where dismissing movies out of hand and storming out of screenings before the end are points of professional pride for some festival vets — as if they had somewhere better to be. In the case of Steven Soderbergh’s Che, which lost a not-insignificant portion of its press-screening audience during intermission, that somewhere may have been the nearest bar with a satellite TV, given that the festival was so thoughtless as to schedule the film opposite the European Champions League soccer final between Chelsea and Manchester United. Quel scandale! Even those who saw the filmthrough to the end were hardly unanimous in their assessment. “No doubt it will be back to the drawing board for Che,” opined Variety, touching off a spirited, festival-long debate over whether Che was chef-d’oeuvre or folie de grandeur.

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