The Headless Woman, the third feature film written and directed by Argentina’s Lucrecia Martel, began with a recurring dream that haunted the director in much the way her film — a kind of bourgeois horror movie — will haunt some members of the audience. “The dream had to do with the fear of discovering that I had committed a crime,” says the 42-year-old Martel — slender, dark-haired, intense — over a recent lunch in Los Angeles, where she was attending a retrospective of her films at the UCLA Film and Television Archive. “The most terrifying thing in that dream was that irreversible fact and the chance of the crime never being revealed, and having to carry that burden forever,” she adds.
From that place of unease, Martel fashioned a story about Vero (played hypnotically by saucer-eyed peroxide blonde María Onetto), a middle-aged dentist who, in a moment of distraction, hit something with her car on a bumpy dirt road. Stopping abruptly, she sees the carcass of a dog in her rearview mirror, drives on again, then stops a bit farther down the road and — the next thing she knows — finds herself in the waiting room of an emergency clinic. She doesn’t undersatnd quite how she got there and neither, for that matter, do we: In a radical conceit that proved one of the love-it-or-hate-it talking points of the 2008 Cannes Film Festival (where The Headless Woman premiered in competition), everything Martel shows us onscreen seems to be filtered through Vero’s own woozy, disoriented point of view. Did she really run over a dog, or something larger, she begins to wonder — something with only two legs instead of four? And who are all these strange people around her, claiming to be her family and assuring her that everything is going to be all right?
The movie’s uncertain, which-way-is-up subjective reality calls to mind the work of Davids Cronenberg and Lynch (both of whom Martel says she admires) in its willful refusal to root the viewer in any sort of objective “normal” — a feeling intensified by Martel’s use of blurred images and oblique angles; claustrophobic, screen-filling close-ups; and mysterious offscreen sounds. It’s an aesthetic Martel ascribes in part to her teenage experiments with the family camcorder, when she would film hours upon hours of her own family going about their everyday business. “Watching those video recordings, I realized the effect of different things like what was and wasn’t in the frame, the way in which the different characters would move and organize themselves in the frame, etc.,” she says.
But on the set of her 2001 debut feature, La Ciénaga, Martel often found herself at loggerheads with her more experienced crew members, who tried to convince her that her unconventional ideas about image and sound were, quite simply, wrong. Still, she stuck to her instincts, driven by the desire to find that “something else” lurking beyond the ordinary surfaces of things. “When I am filming, even though everything that is happening on the set has been written and planned in advance, there is a moment, when I look through the camera, where I am waiting to see what else gets revealed,” she says.
Part of what Martel reveals in her films is the willful blindness of the Argentinian bourgeoisie — a social class Martel, who describes her own breeding as “solidly middle class,” observes with a mixture of affection, pity and contempt. Again, there is a strong connection to her childhood in the northwestern Argentine province of Salta, where all three of her features (the second, The Holy Girl, was released in 2004) have been set. When I ask Martel if she remembers the moment when she first realized she had been born into a position of social privilege and power, she tells me she does, absolutely. “I had to go to apply for an activity in the church close to our house, and my mom asked our cleaning lady to come with me,” she says. “The girl was 18 years old. She had to drop what she was doing and walk me there. While we were walking I felt that I had a huge power over her. The power was mixed with a certain sexual feeling. Until that moment, I had never become aware of what it was like to have someone under oneself.”
After considering careers as varied as physics, advertising and art history, Martel, motivated by an animation course she had taken, applied to the national film school in Buenos Aires. Her first live-action short, El Rey Muerto, was selected for inclusion in the 1995 compilation film Historias Breves I, which introduced many of the directors who have since been grouped together under the heading New Argentine Cinema — a label Martel clearly bristles at for its suggestions of a collectivist spirit akin to that of the French New Wave. “I don’t see it as a movement but as the incorporation of new people to the Argentine cinema,” she says. “This doesn’t have to do with a new movement so much as with the fact that, during the years of dictatorship, there wasn’t much cinema and now all these different people making movies are little by little showing up in the Argentine cinema.”
More recently, Martel, who cites Ridley Scott’s Alien as one of her favorite films, was linked to a most atypical project — a large-budget adaptation of El Eternauta, a 1950s comic strip by Héctor Germán Oesterheld about an alien invasion in Buenos Aires. For now, she says, that project is on hold, but adds, “I am working on a movie that also concerns an invasion. It has a certain fantastic genre quality, but instead of being about aliens, it’s about unexpected relatives who show up, nobody really knows who they are, and they are living on the furniture in the garden.”
The Headless Woman opens on Friday, September 4, in L.A. theaters. For J. Hoberman’s review, see Film Reviews.