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La Mujer Sin Cabeza (Lucrecia Martel, 2008)

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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.

One of the many instances of Vero's "headlessness" through careful framing and mise-en-scene.

One of the many instances of “headlessness” achieved through deliberate framing and mise-en-scene.

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.

More "headless" framing.

More “headless” framing.

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.

Vero’s “headlessness” is a loss of her sense of place within Argentina’s socio-economic class structure.

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 working-class exist as shadows in the world of the bourgeoisie.

Stripped of their humanity, the working-class exist as ghosts in the world of 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.

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White Dog (Samuel Fuller, 1981)

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Samuel Fuller’s White Dog (1981) wasn’t officially released in the United States until the Criterion Collection’s edition of the film was put out in 2008. At the time of its production, in the early 80s, Paramount was reluctant to promote a film that exhibited such a cynical attitude about the persistence of racism in America, so instead opted to shelve the film after only a few screenings in the US and Europe. Fuller’s crushing disappointment with Paramount’s decision ultimately contributed to his departure from the US to France, effectively ending his American film career. (For more details on Paramount’s suppression of White Dog‘s release, click here). Though at the time Fuller’s talents as a socially conscious B-movie director didn’t grant him the clout necessary to push for a wider release, his subsequent admittance into the purview of the critical world–White Dog is one of seven Fuller-directed films rereleased by the status-granting Criterion Collection–has brought the film to a much larger contemporary audience.

White Dog stars former child-star Kristy McNichol as Julie, an aspiring actress who accidentally hits a white German Shepard while driving home one night. Feeling responsible for the pup’s well-being, she resolves to temporarily adopt him while searching for his owners. The unnamed canine quickly grows attached to Julie, and proves himself a worthy companion after saving her from a deranged home-intruder. Eventually, the audience’s identification with the dog (in part facilitated by camerawork that indicates his point-of-view) shifts once it is revealed that he is a “white dog”; that is, a dog trained by white racists to attack black skin on sight.

Shot-reverse shot sequence between Julie and the dog, in which the dog's POV is adopted by the camera.

Shot-reverse shot sequence between Julie and the dog, in which the dog’s POV is adopted by the camera.

Julie is initially unwilling to believe that her new friend could harbor such a dark side. Convinced of his innocence, she brings him along to her work on the set of a Hollywood studio. On the set, however, the dog viciously attacks a black actress named Molly (Lynne Moody), putting her in the hospital. Forced to accept that the dog is seriously dangerous, Julie seeks out the help of a Hollywood animal trainer named Keys (Paul Winfield). For the rest of the film, Keys works tirelessly to retrain the dog, despite the repeated assertions from virtually everyone around him that it can’t be done. His attempts are revealed to be the latest in a long history with “white dogs”–each case having ended in his failure. Despite his poor track record, Keys remains motivated until the very end by his belief that racism is not natural or innate, but rather learned, and therefore possible to unlearn.

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Parallel low-height shots of the white dog and his soon-to-be-victim walking towards one another are juxtaposed to heighten tension.

Shot on a small budget and in a short time frame, White Dog belongs to the tradition of the Hollywood B-movie (though it came at a time during which the practice by major studios of producing cheap but relatively profitable accompaniments to major features had declined sharply). Paramount hired Fuller to direct the film based on his long-standing reputation for making quality genre films with tight budgets. Like many of Fuller’s films, White Dog abounds with exploitation-film motifs, including the heavy use of dramatic music (scored by the great Ennio Morricone), intense close-ups and zooms, and sensationalistic depictions of violence. In particular, the final scene in the film is a sort of catch-all for Fuller’s exploitation tendencies, incorporating the formalist elements above with a slow-motion climax that takes the form of a tense stand-off between the dog, Keys, and Julie (possibly a reference to Fuller’s earlier Westerns).

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Fuller, whose other films include exploitation classics like Shock Corridor (1963) and The Naked Kiss (1964),  often imbued his films with social commentary that reflected his own left-leaning politics. White Dog is not his first film to examine racism, but it is his most biting (pun… intended) and condemning of racism in contemporary society. As a sort of “social problem” film, White Dog addresses the question of whether racism can be unlearned, both individually and on a larger collective scale. The characters in White Dog are caricatures, mostly one-dimensional, who undergo very little change or transformation through the plot’s unraveling. As such, the audience’s investment in the characters and their development/transformation is transferred to the dog and his retraining. Bound up in the dog’s retraining is the potential redemption of contemporary (white) America. The film argues that racism is not inherent, inevitable, or innocuous, but neither is it easily cast-off or eradicated. Once learned, the fear and hate that underlie racism can only be reconfigured. And for a society built on an ideology of white supremacy, only the privileged and naive can afford to believe that racism ends in the era of “multiculturalism”.

Racism’s familiar face.

The somewhat unexpected longevity of Fuller’s legacy as a B-movie director is at least partly due to the immense influence he’s had on filmmakers such as Quentin Tarantino, who incorporate exploitation/B-movie elements into major Hollywood blockbusters adored by both the critical and commercial establishments. Like White Dog, Tarantino’s latest hit, Django Unchained, is about the brutality of racism and the decimation of black bodies. Both films depict highly aestheticized and upsetting violence against (mostly) black men. And while both condemn the violence, they also indulge in it and invite audiences to do the same. So what might explain the differences in the critical and popular receptions of White Dog and Django Unchained?

Unlike White Dog, Django is set in a past unrecognizable from contemporary America–the Antebellum South. The film’s villains are notably not ordinary Americans of the time, but rather the plantation-owning elite, an antiquated breed of racist that serves to highlight, by contrast, how decidedly non-racist we are today. Like all of Tarantino’s films, Django can be summarized as a hybridized genre film that freely draws on an assortment of cinematic traditions in a spirit of playful pastiche. Primarily taking the form of a Western, Django also draws heavily on the blaxploitation tradition of the 70s, freely melding qualities of these disparate genres with little consideration of the specific cultural context that gave rise to them. With much of the same non-consideration, Tarantino treats the history of slavery in the U.S. as little more than a generic structure from which to appropriate certain elements that make for the most entertaining feature film. Inherent in this film and its entire conception is an underlying ideology of “color-blindness”. Tarantino’s response to the criticism about his flippant treatment of slavery in the film was essentially to argue that his role as an artist grants him the right to tell any story he wants, regardless of his own positionality. To deny him that right–why, it would be reverse racism! With no regard for the real, complex persistence of slavery’s legacy in contemporary society, any social message or critique that might be gleaned from Django Unchained is inevitably swallowed up by the its generic structure; reduced to a postmodernist twist on the generic form of the classic Western.

White Dog‘s examination of racism, and its hypothesis that fear and hate are its most essential components, is too simplistic to offer a truly satisfying critique of white supremacy. Nonetheless, the film succeeds in illustrating at least two points that Django cannot. First, unlike Django, the face of racism is not a gold-toothed plantation owner, but a friendly neighbor with two sweet granddaughters. Racism is given a familiar face, revealed to be much closer and intimately bound to our reality than we’d like to admit. Second, White Dog illustrates the way in which privilege functions to obscure the structures of power that produce that privilege in the first place. When Keys explains the history of white dogs and their use in the South, Julie is shocked by both the brutality of the history and her complete ignorance of it. Julie’s sheltered life of privilege initially makes her doubt the validity of the dog’s conditioning, so sure that such a thing could only exist in, say, the mid-19th century. Her ignorance of the lived reality of racism results in a skepticism of the sort that might explain how some today can speak of a “post-racial” society, or even fathom the notion of “reverse racism”. White Dog‘s refusal to conform to a narrative that places the end of racism as sometime in the distant past is a radical thing for a Hollywood production, even 30 years after its release. As directors like Tarantino continue to find inspiration in the exploitation-aesthetic of Fuller’s work, the question is whether this aesthetic will be used to debunk the dominant narratives that underlie Hollywood cinema, or simply reproduce them in flashy colors.

Les Bonnes Femmes (Claude Chabrol, 1960)

My first post, and first “review” of sorts. Excuse me while I get settled in… I have only the vaguest sense of what form these reviews will take. Hopefully I don’t bore myself to death trying to find anything even remotely interesting or nuanced to say. But enough with the disclaimers.


Claude Chabrol’s Les Bonnes Femmes is an early example of French New Wave (Nouvelle Vogue) cinema, released the same year as Jean Luc-Godard’s New Wave classic Breathless. For those unfamiliar with the French New Wave, the filmmakers associated with the movement were highly derisive of French cinema’s “Tradition of Quality”. According to these critics (who included the likes of Chabrol, Godard, and Francois Truffaut), French films were unimaginative and stiflingly professional in their construction of narrative and their use of the cinematic form. In response, the French New Wave critics-turned-filmmakers employed experimental film techniques and unconventional narrative styles to challenge this dominant mode. New Wave films frequently placed far greater emphasis on the formal elements of film (lighting, camera angles, editing, etc.) than on narrative, resulting in stories that are often difficult to follow, characters who resist audience identification, and plots in which…well, in which not much happens and nothing is resolved. Maybe a more accurate way to describe the New Wave attitude towards narrative is not that it’s unimportant, but rather that it can be flexible, disjointed, and to some point anarchic. Somewhat unexpectedly, these filmmakers looked to a handful of mainstream Hollywood directors (like Alfred Hitchcock and Howard Hawks) for inspiration, naming them auteurs–that is, filmmakers operating within a relatively restrictive major studio context who nonetheless demonstrated a unique and personal vision in their work. (We have the French New Wave to thank for popularizing the notion of the director as the primary author/artist of the films he or she directs.)

A shot demonstrating the sort of interesting formalist techniques used in the film--in this case, the use of reflective surfaces that distort the women's vision of themselves.

A shot demonstrating the sort of interesting formalist techniques used in the film–in this case, the use of reflective surfaces that distort the women’s vision of themselves.

Chabrol is frequently understood as the New Wave director most indebted to Hitchcock’s work, particularly in terms of his interest in the thriller/suspense genres. Les Bonnes Femmes is indicative of Hitchcock’s influence on Chabrol, though the film’s thriller elements are kept more or less subtle up until the film’s surprising conclusion. Like many New Wave films, Les Bonnes Femmes self-consciously borrows from different genres (thriller, romance, comedy, Italian neorealism) in order to destabilize generic categories and upend audiences expectations. Throughout, the soundtrack resembles that of a thriller film, despite the fact that there’s little suspense in terms of the narrative development. As the film approaches its end, it takes a detour into the romance genre, indicated by a sequence in which one of the film’s main characters frolics about with her mysterious new love interest… It’s only once the film is over that this particular choice for non-diegetic music makes any sense to the viewer.

The film centers around the lives of four young Parisian shop girls, each with her own desires and fantasies, and each disappointed with the reality they face. The women seem to represent a sort of angsty, existentialist ennui commonly found in French New Wave films; shots abound of the women looking bored and frustrated both at work and during their nights out. In the case of each of the women, men play a large role in the disenchantment the women experience, and an even larger role in their disempowered social position. Their curmudgeon boss at the shop constantly harasses them, but their financial insecurity keeps them from quitting or even rebuking his advances.

Gross bosses are the worst.

Like watching a Hitchcock film, I’m never quite certain whether Chabrol is offering a critique of normative gender dynamics and patriarchy, or whether the tragedy is meant to be seen as a sort of inevitable result of inherent differences between men and women. On the one hand, the film exposes the patriarchal conditions responsible for the women’s unhappiness. Virtually ever male character in the film is a total sleaze-ball looking to take advantage of the women, or else demanding they live up to some bourgeois expectation of femininity. In one of the film’s funnier scenes, one of the women, Rita, is rapidly coached by her fiance on how to make a good first impression on his elitist parents, who they are meeting for dinner. Henri, the fiance, chastises Rita for not wearing a nicer blouse, then encourages her to lie about her father’s profession (“Better say your father is an overseer”), before finally asking her to not even mention their impending marriage for fear of offending his traditional mother. Understandably, Rita is flustered during the dinner, saying very little in hopes that she won’t disappoint her fiance or his parents. Prior to the scene, Rita brags to the other shop girls about finally meeting Henri’s parents, as if it’s evidence of his love and approval. The painfully awkward dinner scene that follows seems to be a disavowal of Rita’s assumption, an ironic look at romance that ultimately suggests the limits of love in the face of social class structures. Henri is only willing to introduce Rita so long as she can fulfill (read: perform) her role as the perfectly “cultured” and respectable young woman his parents (representing high-society) expect.

“A Renaissance painter…?”
“Painter, sculptor, architect, poet, breadth of vision!!”

On the other hand, the film seems to treat its female characters as naive, as partially to blame for the conditions they find themselves in. When Rita asks her co-workers what they want out of life, each responds that it’s love that they truly desire. Later on, it’s Jacqueline’s (the quiet one of the group) willingness to believe in the love of her stalker that leads to her grisly demise. That the film ends with an unnamed woman happily dancing with a stranger on the dance floor might be Chabrol’s way of turning Jacqueline’s naiveté into a larger commentary on the vulnerability of women due to their unrealistic romantic dreams. It’s troubling that not a single one of Chabrol’s female character in this film seems content to search for fulfillment anywhere other than in the arms of a man (especially when all the men are such incredible jerks…). There is definitely some social commentary at play in the film, but there’s much to be desired if you’re looking for a nuanced feminist critique of gender relations.

Though I’m embarrassed to admit I haven’t seen a ton of Chabrol’s other work, I’ve seen enough New Wave films to feel confident in declaring Les Bonnes Femmes a relatively accessible introduction to the movement. Its formal and narrative experimentation is undoubtedly present, but doesn’t beat you over the head the way a Godard film might. Whether or not this is a strength or a weakness of the film seems dependent on each viewer’s individual tastes. In any case, the film’s cynical yet witty examination of romance–a sort of deconstructive examination that challenges dominantly held beliefs typically espoused in film–makes for a decidedly cool movie that illustrates much of what the French New Wave was all about.