Argentine filmmaker Lucrecia Martel, with her masterful psychological thriller "The Headless Woman" (2008), achieves with near perfection what very few filmmakers do. Via some expertly designed images and sounds and their well thought out arrangement, she recreates the deadpan haze the protagonist experiences post an incident that transports her to a state of psychosis.
It all begins on an ordinary day when Veronica (Maria Onetto), a well-to-do middle-aged dentist hits something or someone while driving on an empty road near a canal. She is paralyzed by the fear of having fatally hit someone. For about a minute, as she tries to regain her composure, the camera stays still on her petrified profile. She tries to look outside, but possibly isn’t able to muster the courage to do either that, or even step out to look at what she hit. Was it an animal? Was it a person? She is too scared to find out.
The hit number "Soley Soley" by the band ironically called "Middle of the Road" continues to play in the stereo, and now we clearly see small palm prints on the side window pane. She starts the car back, and continues to drive on. In an eerie move on the part of the filmmaker, perhaps, to play with the viewer's psyche or in an attempt to now transport us to the universe of an altered state of mind of Veronica, we see that these palm prints mysteriously change shape as the car moves on! She stops the car at a point, it starts to rain, and Martel's camera captures an ingenious shot in which Veronica's head is obscured by the frame of the car, symbolically representing her now headless state!
Throughout the remainder of the film, we only walk through a dazed state of disconcerted headlessness! Well, not in the literal sense or even in the sense of foolishness either! This is the kind of feeling that is experienced when one encounters a jolt and partially loses touch with reality. The mind drifts away and fails to focus.
It is the kind of lost state from which you have to shake a person vigorously or snap your fingers in order to bring him or her to their senses! There is a temporary, partial memory loss too. Veronica is experiencing a very realistic form of a traumatic reaction which may or may not be a result of the physical concussion she suffers in the incident. It could very well be more psychological than physical.
It is later clear, only through some nuanced but rather jarring sequences that she is the kind of person that seems to be quite reticent and reserved about various facets of her life. She may even have deep-seated, dark secrets that would threaten to break all hell loose in her closely knit, influential family of cousins. But that is beyond the scope of the narrative except to catch us unawares regarding the innermost dark corners of Veronica's twisted psyche.
The focal point of Martel's film then is to take us right into the mind of Veronica post the accident. And in an attempt to do so, she employs devices that literally make us experience her dislocated state. Needless to say, there is a heavy reliance on the atmospherics.
Only these aren't the Lynchian kind, but clearly more on the dull, lazy, perhaps sedated side as well! However negative that sounds, it actually works in the film's favor; never once do you feel like taking your eyes off the screen. Sometimes there is a perpetual drone in the sound. The camera moves slowly and sometimes it halts on an ordinary frame for a long time. Images get blurry. Sometimes there are tight close-ups, almost too close for comfort. There are images that reflect an askance vision, that of a paranoid and anxious individual, suppressing with great difficulty her inner turmoil!
This is accentuated with Maria Onetto's terrific and subtle performance. Since the incident she hardly speaks. She is almost zombified, disconnected from what's happening around her and bears an uneasy look on her face throughout. Onetto's portrayal of a guilt-ridden individual suffering in silence is flawless.
Behold the instances when she barely opens her mouth to speak when a response is expected of her, and someone else speaks for her, or those moments that amplify the visible discomfort on her face. In such a scenario of paranoia, the mind is capable of playing tricks on the individual and thus, Martel toys around with the idea of the real and the imagined as well. There are apparently some events in the film that do not actually occur, but there is no specific line to distinguish them, neither is there any intended tone. Sometimes there are illusions of apparitions highlighted in a spectacular scene towards the end. While such a move inevitably leads to ambiguities, it also renders the proceedings wholly accurate.
Special mention must be made of how music played on a stereo equipment is used to a disquieting effect. A joyous song plays in Veronica's car at moderate volume in an eerie emptiness after the hit and before the run! In another scene, an indistinct muffled sound of music playing in the vicinity fills our ears as Veronica drives through one of the more poorer neighbourhoods. Apart from these fine aural effects, in an obvious attempt to reference the title of the film, Martel uses an interesting visual gimmick, whereby the heads of some characters are cropped off from frames or obscured by some other objects in several scenes.
"The Headless Woman" deserves more viewership. It is a far out thriller that doesn’t have any qualms about its minimalism, for it focuses on a scenario in the life of an individual that may sound too flimsy and minor, but the effects an exaggerated imagination can have on the mind of the affected could be far greater. And its maker does a mighty great job of getting that point across.