La mujer sin cabeza (The Headless Woman) is a film likely to frustrate–infuriate, even–most audiences upon the first viewing. Its refusal to divulge almost any background information about its characters or their relationships puts the viewer in a perpetual state of anxiety, as any sort of coherency or intelligibility to the events on screen is continuously delayed. Additionally, its slow pace and disorienting narrative disrupt the most typical modes of audience engagement with narrative films. For example, the audience’s identification with the protagonist is complicated by her bizarre and confusing behavior. As far as plot goes, there’s no real moment of climax or transformation, let alone resolution. It’s for all these reasons that La mujer sin cabeza is undoubtedly a “difficult” film to watch. Still, as an examination of the social roles and boundaries that govern day-to-day life–so typically relegated to the background of a film–La mujer sin cabeza‘s difficulty is well-worth the discomfort it causes.
The film begins in the rural part of Salta, a city in northwestern Argentina. A group of young boys and their dog play beside a dusty highway road that runs along a dried-up canal. The smallest boy chases after the others, who tease him by taking his bike. The boy struggles to climb out of the canal after chasing one of his friends down into it, when the camera cuts to the clean, reflective glass of a car window. In the reflection, one woman carefully adjusts her eyelashes as another coaches her through the motions–“Close, bend, arch. Don’t touch yourself. Open.” The women are a part of a larger group of mothers and children in the wealthier, urban part of Salta. The sudden juxtaposition of these first two scenes draws attention to the many differences marking the first set of characters from the second. The dark-skinned boys from the first scene are a part Argentina’s working-class; those whose parents work as maids and servants for the middle-class women of the second scene. The boys’ indigenous features are contrasted with those of the European-looking women, illustrating the lasting legacy of violence and colonization in the region. Amidst the mix of bourgeois women, the bleached blonde hair of the film’s central character, Vero, more colorfully highlights the racialized nature of Argentina’s class stratification.
In the following scene, a shot from the passenger’s seat of Vero’s car shows her in profile as she drives along the same dusty road from the opening scene. As Vero reaches for her ringing cell phone, the car hits something, causing her to jerk and hit her head. The camera’s fixed position withholds any clues about what she’s hit, but the very next shot, taken from Vero’s rear window as she drives away, reveals a dog’s body lying dead on the road.
Following the accident is a series of disjointed scenes that depict Vero wandering in a daze, clearly suffering from some sort of trauma (physical or otherwise) brought on by the car accident. She is taken to a hospital (but by whom?), where x-rays are taken before she quietly walks out as her nurse handles paperwork. Without explanation, Vero ends up in a hotel, where she sleeps with a man who seems to be related to her in some yet-unexplained way. At home, her daze goes unnoticed by her husband, as well as the indigenous women who work as servants for Vero’s family. At her elderly aunt’s home, Vero watches a home video of her own wedding play on the TV, but fails to recognize anyone on the screen.
Days later, Vero becomes convinced that she ran over a child. Confiding in her husband and her cousin-in-law (the man from the hotel), she exhibits a sudden certainty and clarity about her guilt. The men are well-connected to the town’s law enforcement and hospital services, and are able to assuage Vero with the fact that no accidents have been reported in that part of the city. However, as more details emerge about the rural boy who’s gone missing and the mysterious blockage causing the canal to overflow, Vero’s feelings of guilt seem increasingly confirmed. Meanwhile, Vero’s husband takes the car out of town for repairs, her x-rays disappear from the hospital’s files, and when she returns to the hotel, the receptionist insists she never checked in.
Vero’s accident, and the subsequent cover-up made possible by her powerful connections, is an extreme example of the violence that underlies all interactions between the bourgeoisie and the working-class. In a Q&A session following a screening of the film at UCLA, the film’s writer and director, Lucrecia Martel, suggested that “la violencia más terrible es a la que uno se acostumbra y deja de ver” (the worst kind of violence is the kind one becomes accustomed to and no longer notices). Martel is particularly concerned with the bourgeoisie’s complicity in maintaining unequal power relations, and the violence that occurs everyday between the European-descended elite classes and the indigenous poor who serve them. Vero’s accident forces her to see this violence, to recognize her complicity.
The daze that Vero experiences in the movie serves to denaturalize the social modes and conventions inscribed in her mundane routine. She appears bewildered by every interaction; even greeting her family is a difficult task. Even more confounding to her is the coddling treatment she receives from the numerous maids, gardeners, and assistants who surround her, and who make her privileged lifestyle possible. In his analysis of the film, Daniel Quiros argues that Vero reconstructs her identity by paying especially close attention to the unequal power relations inscribed in her day-to-day life. Vero’s “headlessness” is the sudden alienation from her position in Argentina’s class structure, which forces her to make sense of the social rules and customs that inform daily interactions. In this way, class status is revealed as “performative”, in the sense that it is constituted through the frequent repetition of small actions and gestures that are situated within a larger social context, rather than being natural or inherent. The unequal power relations inscribed in the interactions between men and women is similarly examined and deconstructed. Vero’s certainty about her guilt is gradually overruled by her husband’s patronizing assertion that she was simply frightened by hitting a dog. The guilt and delirium brought on by the crash are reduced to the irrational reactions of a hysterical woman, who needs the men in her life to protect her.
La mujer sin cabeza is the third film by the acclaimed auteur Lucrecia Martel. Martel is considered a leading member of the stylistically diverse Nuevo Cine Argentino, the loosely-defined film movement that emerged in the mid-90s during the rise of neoliberalism in Argentina. The movement arrived a decade after the end of Argentina’s so-called “Dirty War”–more accurately described as a campaign of state-sponsored terrorism waged against political dissidents. During this period, it’s estimated that 30,000 Argentinos were secretly kidnapped and killed by the government’s forces. The victims of this campaign are referred to as los desaparecidos (the disappeared), due to the government’s denial of responsibility and the implicit suggestion that the victims simply vanished. The quiet complicity of the middle-class during the “Dirty War” is clearly on Martel’s mind in La mujer sin cabeza. In her article, “A Counternarrative of Argentine Mourning,” Cecilia Sosa asserts that the film is really about how “the disappeared are still encrypted in the present, circulating, emerging from different states of humanity, embodied by the current marginalized lives.” There are multiple shots of laborers shrouded in shadows or obscured by the camera’s shallow focus that support this notion of los desapericidos re-appearing in the form of the country’s exploited class, whose oppression is not only ignored but maintained by the bourgeoisie.
The viewer’s own comfort with this normalized kind of violence is exactly what Martel seeks to disturb by making this film such a frustrating and disorienting experience. Martel has suggested that the title of the film is a reference to the tradition of B-movie horror films she watched as a child. While the subject matter of her film seem atypical of the genre, the connection makes sense when considered alongside film critic Robin Wood’s argument that “the true subject of the horror genre is the struggle for recognition of all that our civilization represses or oppresses, its reemergence dramatized, […] and the happy ending typically signifying the restoration of repression.” Like most horror movies, La mujer sin cabeza ends with stability seemingly restored. But like the transgressive horror films of the 70s, rather than celebrate this restoration, La mujer sin cabeza demands that its viewers acknowledge the repressive force exercised in maintaining the social order. In the end, the most horrifying thing about the film is not Vero’s “headlessness”, but how easy it is for her to find it again, how quickly she resumes her position, and how quietly and indiscriminately her guilt is absolved.
Quirós, Daniel. ““La época Está En Desorden”: Reflexiones Sobre La Temporalidad En Bolivia De Adrián Caetano Y La Mujer Sin Cabeza De Lucrecia Martel.” A Contra Corriente 8.1 (2010): 230-58. Print.
Sosa, Cecilia. “A Counter-narrative of Argentine Mourning: The Headless Woman (2008), Directed by Lucrecia Martel.” Theory, Culture & Society 26.7-8 (2010): 250-62. Print.
Woods, Robin. “The American Nightmare – Horror in the 70s.” Horror, the Film Reader. London: Routledge, 2002. 25-32. Print.