review “Headless Woman” (La mujer sin cabeza) a complex head-tripper from Argentina, San Francisco Film Society, September 18-24, 2009
Somehow, the corpse always surfaces at the most inconvenient moment. In Lucretia Martel’s newest film “The Headless Woman,” we are given a puzzle—there is a hit and run accident in rural Argentina…but what, or who, was hit isn’t clear. We are then slowly fed the pieces in scenes that are richly layered with clues but, even then, they do not add up to coherency, rather frustration. A corpse surfaces–an indigenous child. The woman driving has lost her head, better said…her memory fails her because it is just too hard to look. At its core, the film is a metaphor for the country of Argentina and its convenient miasma around the lost generation of those who protested the dictatorship and went missing. If you block something out, does it mean you didn’t do it? If you clean up all the evidence, does it mean it didn’t happen at all? In Martel’s film, issues of class and social responsibility cloud what seem obvious answers to those of us who have an absolutist sense of justice.
The film is set in the same region of northwestern Argentina, near Salta, as Martel’s previous two films, “La Ciénaga” and “The Holy Girl.” The movie opens with four indigenous boys and a dog playing in a deep canal that runs along a stretch of isolated rural highway. A car is heard in the distance and the kids scamper. Verónica or “Veró,”(María Onetto), is a put-together 40ish bottle blonde—her hair communicates immediately who she is and what class she is from. She is driving along in her Mercedes on this rural road and her cell-phone rings and, as she reaches for it, she hits something and is jerked abruptly in her car. Rattled, she stops the car. Just when it seems natural to glance back in the mirror to see what she has run over, she instead puts on her dark sunglasses and doesn’t look back at all. The afternoon glare reveals two mysterious small hand prints on the driver’s window of her car. A camera shot to the back reveals a mass in the road, like a big animal or a body. Veró continues driving and then stops because her car is being pelted by heavy rain. A big storm is starting to unleash itself.
She is next seen in a medical clinic for the poor, getting her head x-rayed and acting very disoriented. She leaves abruptly when she is identified as the sister of a doctor. She then proceeds, disconnectedly, to a spartan hotel room where she meets her lover, Juan Manual (Daniel Genoud). Once at home, after more disconnected behavior, she tells her husband Marcos (César Bordón) that she thinks she hit something, a dog. She worries increasingly that it might have been someone, not something, and finally tells Marcos that she thinks she killed someone. He tries to convince her that, in the heavy storm, it could have been anything. She says she had the accident before the storm. Her car is badly dented. Her lover, Juan Manual, who it turns out is a cousin of her husband, arrives and agrees to use his connections to see if there have been any accidents by the roadside. He tells them not to worry and receives a report back–no.
But a week later, as Verónica and family members are driving on the same road, they come upon a crew dredging the canal, which has filled with water from the storm. A body has been found blocking a pipe and the smell causes them to roll up their windows. The corpse has surfaced. At the same time, a buried fountain or pool has been unearthed at the edge of Veró’s garden by her landscaper—a dual metaphor for the pool of blood that once flowed in Argentina, was buried but later unearthed and for what is unfolding in this upperclass family.
As the film moves forward, we become less sure of Veró’s credibility. Martel keeps the action focused solely on her, so we have no context, no way to sort this out than to study her. We begin to wonder if it’s an act and she knows exactly what has happened (in the way she keeps her lover separate from her husband) or if she has sommoned her amnesia as a means of convincing herself that she is not at all connected to what transpired.
As more time passes,Veró relaxes back into her comfortable life as a dentist and even volunteers to treat impoverished school children with dental problems. As she councils their parents, we see the huge divide between the classes in this country. She is respected, has some power, and seems above reproach. She dyes her hair dark brown, signaling her tacit complicity to try to put what happened as a blonde behind her.
When she returns back to the hospital to pick up her x-rays, and clean up any trail, there is no record of them having been taken. When she goes to the hotel, where she met Juan Manuel, she finds there is no record of her having been in the room or at the hotel. The men in her life have apparently protected her by erasing any evidence of her whereabouts the day of the accident; even the car has been repaired in a distant city, leaving no connection to her.
Near the end of the film, two of the boys from the opening scene reappear as assistants to a landscaper that Verónica has hired. When she learns later that one of the boys did not show up for work and later, that his body was found, she seems worried. Has fate brought this boy into her life after she has tried so hard to distance herself from the accident? To assuage herself, she offers the surviving boy some food, a bath and a bag of used t-shirts to pick-over.
Nothing is certain in this disturbing film as clues are dropped about a crime that is never solved—all that is made clear is that Verónica is from a family and a social class that has the means to make it all disappear on the surface. Interestingly, not knowing, leaves those of us who are compulsive to keep churning over the pieces we have been fed. Martel said in an interview with Chris Wisniewski “Like my other films, The Headless Woman doesn’t end in the moment that the lights go up, it ends one or two days later.”
Screens Sundance Kabuki Theatre, September 18-24, 2009: 1:45 pm, 4:20 pm, 7:15 pm, 9:25 pm. Saturday and Sunday matinees at 11:25 am
review–”The Beautiful Person” (“La Belle Personne”) even the angst of teen love plays better in French, San Francisco Film Society, Sept 4-10, 2009
“The Beautiful Person,” set in Paris, in an upscale high-school, made me contemplate the unthinkable—if I ever had to do high-school over again, how would it go? How would I react to the various opportunities—amorous and otherwise– that unfold? Loosely inspired by the scandalous 17th century novel La Princesse de Cleves by Madame de La Fayette, director Christophe Honoré (“Ma mère,” “Love Songs”) continues his exploration of French romantic intrigue. Instead of Parisian aristocracy in the court of Henry II, Honoré and co-writer Gilles Taurand set their action in contemporary Paris in an upscale high school. The students are interesting, beautiful, and unkempt– the teachers too–and they explore love and passion while trying to stay engaged with what seems a very loosely regimented but awesome program of poetry, humanities, Italian, English and math. Junie (Léa Seydoux, “The Last Mistress”) is the new girl at school, a transfer student, who has come to live with her cousin Matthias just after the death of her mother. Voluptuous, alabaster-skinned, with a tragic air, she becomes the object of male attention and is quickly welcomed into Matthias’ clique of school friends.
Mild-mannered Otto (Gregoire Leprince-Ringuet), falls hard for her and their first conversation sets up a loose plot. Otto tells her that Junie is also Néron’s tormentor in Racine’s 17th century tragic play “Brittancus” and they discuss how it ends badly for Junie who takes vows and never marries. Later, egged on by his friends, Otto professes his love to Junie. She tells him what she needs “Don’t lie to me and look after me, always.” Otto agrees. Junie French kisses him publicly in the school hall and the two become an item. Junie is bursting with magnetic mystique ..she is photographed in the hallway by a student who is an amateur photographer; she is noticed by women as well. At one point in the film, an evocative song on a jukebox plays lyrics that compliment what is going on throughout the film– ”She was so pretty that I didn’t dare love her.”
When newbie Junie arrives in Italian class, a student is in the midst of a presentation about Donizetti’s opera Lucia di Lammermoor. Junie sits down by the teacher Mr. Nemour (Louis Garrel) and the two eye each other nervously. She abruptly walks out, in tears, during Maria Callas’ spellbinding aria, leaving her books behind. After this brief encounter, Mr. Nemour too falls hard for Junie and even steals a picture of her from her notebook. Nemour, a dark-eyed dreamy lothario, who barely looks like he is out of high school, is in the midst of two affairs–one with a colleague (Florence Perin) and the other with a student Catherine (Anaïs Demoustier). Nemours breaks it off with both women and confesses his love for Junie to his colleague who advises him that “loving a student is too easy.” “Not this one” Nemours replies “I’m a total love-sick mess.” To which his friend insighftfully replies “You seem more disappointed in love than in the concept of love at first sight.” Indeed the complexity, no mess, that ensues is overwhelming.
We get subtle hints that stalwart Junie is falling for Nemour but trying hard not to. She is terribly afraid of giving in to what she assumes will be a grand, once in a life-time love and denies herself Nemour but snacks on safe love with endearing Otto. Meanwhile, a subplot emerges involving a love letter that is passed around and mistakenly thought to be Nemour’s but really involves Junie’s cousin Matthias (Esteban Carvajal-Alegria) and his affair with fellow student Martin (Martin Siméon). Mathias has hidden his homosexuality and, in addition to Martin, has carried on with another student Henri (Simon Truxillo) who is in love with him and very vindictive. The letter threatens to expose everything if the correct author and intended recipient are revealed. But it’s all a mess. The letter changes hands several times and when Junie reads it, she assumes that Nemour has written it to her and takes actions that push this volatile group into certain doom.
This has all the makings of a great drama but falls short. The performances of the lead characters lack real depth and it’s very hard to get inside their heads, with the exception of Otto. Léa Seydoux and Louis Garrel are enthralling to look at…and, based on looks alone, we can certainly envision them in bed together, but how would that happen? Their conversation is basically flat and they fail to connect naturally or with any tenderness…time after time. Junie is cold or indifferent, sending Nemour into confusion after confusion. By the time they finally come to an understanding, it is too late. And even when it is too late, we don’t get any feeling of implosion. Junie’s constraint, fear of succumbing to her passion, is what needs to be further explored. The potential is there but there’s no spark. Nicole (Chantal Neuwirth), a maternal and wise older woman who works at the local café where they all hang-out, takes a shine to Junie, and delivers one of the most authentic, but too brief, performances in the film. The cinematography is marvelous, capturing gray, drizzly Paris and some candid close-ups. The sountrack ranges from opera to Nick Drake , the lyrics tracking or accentuating the action in the film.
Screens Sundance Kabuki Theatre, September 4-10, 2009: 2:05 pm, 4:05 pm, 7:15 pm, 9:35 pm. Saturday and Sunday matinees at 11:40 am.