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Silhouette Recommends – The Headless Woman

September 30, 2018 | By

Silhouette members discussed Argentine director Lucrecia Martel’s The Headless Woman which is a mysterious psychological thriller that realms on the ambiguous and the uncertain anxieties of the frail human emotions. At times vague yet claustrophobic, the film had loose strands for the viewer to decipher or be further confused in the mesh. A unique cinematic journey, Silhouette recommends the film.

(dir: Pavel Lungin, Russia, 112 min.)

Recommended by:
Amitava Nag, Partha Sarathi Raha, Sambaran Sarkar, Subhadeep Ghosh

Lucrecia Martel’s ‘The Headless Woman’

Things that worked:

In one of her interviews, Argentine film-maker Lucrecia Martel explained emphatically – “In the world of the cinema, I feel like an impostor. I belong to the ranks of family conversations, stories at siesta time, long telephone calls, etc. I admire very many film directors, but like distant relatives who you wouldn’t invite for Christmas.” It is no doubt hence that Martel’s cinematic oeuvre (mostly famous for her Salta Trilogy due to the thematic connections of her native Salta through the three films La Ciénaga [2001], The Holy Girl [2004] and The Headless Woman [2008]) is intrinsically different from most of her counterparts as well as the fore-bearers of cinema.

In tandem with her style, in the last film of the trilogy The Headless Woman, Martel continued with her style of ambiguous narrative progression and continuity and with a subdued and omni-absent soundscape that constantly attempted to break the predominant visual culture of traditional cinema. In the film the central character was Vero, a middle-aged, attractive dentist who ran over something while returning from work which initially seemed to be a dog crossing the highway. As the film evolved Vero was shrouded with anxiety first followed by guilt as she suspected she ran over a human being and not a dog. Her close relatives and husband were sure that it was not the case though it remained an unresolved mystery till the end whether there was any validity in Vero’s continuously buoyant nervousness.

Subhadeep liked the making of the film for its uniqueness and originality. It appeared Hitchcockian at times in bits specially in dealing with the psychology of characters. There is an accident which has happened. Apparently it is that of a dog being run-over but whether it is actually a dog or a human being is the ambiguity that remains. From this uncertainty emerges Vero’s anxiety and in turn a subservient guilt that soon becomes too big for Vero to handle. What Subhadeep liked is the depiction of an individual (Vero) in relation to her family and close relatives. And in parallel a slice of Argentine life comes forth as well including the divide between the fair-skinned rich and the aboriginal, ‘Indian’ poor who work as household maids and servants. All these are rooted to the main point whether the accident has happened or not. This incident and the trail of events to unearth the ‘real’ story could have been the popular and familiar trajectory of thriller films. The director, Subhadeep feels triumphs because she didn’t tread this path, kept the mystery intact but in the process unfurled before the audience a slow, almost uneventful psychotic exposition of Vero’s alienation with family, society and probably with her as well.

Sambaran and others essentially echoed Subhadeep’s views. For Sambaran the portrayal of Vero’s anxiety is the key to the film’s different treatment since Vero in herself is quite mysterious. Her prosaic, almost emotionless expression (apart from being broken down twice or thrice), the invisible faint smile on her lips throughout the film make her equally unfathomable.  He also loved the deliberately loose subtexts in the film which are like waves, covering and receding at the same time.

Subhadeep emphasized that Vero’s anxiety and guilt conscience is a problem that is a trait of affluent citizens of the modern world. To him this anxiety stems from virtual nothingness. At the same time this sudden emotional stress as if made Vero emptied in her head, as if she is unable to comprehend her next steps, in a total disarray. It is probably because of this that we find her trying to be physically engaged with others – not only sexually but also through touch and embrace. Subhadeep pondered whether Vero’s crisis was also because she was a woman and it was her journey to communicate with the society at large when confronted by a disaster.

Partha observed that there were no wide angle shots in the entire film. The point of view of the film was essentially that of Vero’s which probably justified the shallow depth of field. Was Vero a headless woman already, a hint of which was present in her conversation with an elderly bed-ridden woman who might be her mother or an aunt.  Partha mentioned that Vero was shown as staid in her expressions but if so why was she anxious? There was circularity in the whole treatment which the director executed with impunity to sustain the mystery associated with Vero and the events around her.

Amitava loved Maria Onetto’s acting as Vero simply because she had almost no emotions to express and yet she carried her character throughout with exceptional poise. He also found the socio-economic reflection of the Argentine society quite revealing and the use of narrow frames and dark interiors to create a claustrophobic ambience. The use of soft focuses and occasional slow motions add to the ambiguity of the film’s content visually with deftness. Amitava also loved the deliberate cinematographic use of focusing the coloured blonde head of Vero (her natural hair colour was black as mentioned in the dialogues and shown in the end) from different angles and perspectives. It also probably illustrated the vacuous state of her mind, Amitava suggested.

The camera holds the head of the ‘headless’ woman from various angles and perspectives

Things that didn’t work:

Subhadeep didn’t have many dull moments in the film but for the rest of the team the deliberate ambiguity and the purported vagueness which are its strengths are indeed its weaknesses as well. Sambaran didn’t find the film necessarily engaging, a viewpoint supported by Partha. For Partha the film lacked the myriad cinematic dimensions a successful film is expected to possess. For him, The Headless Woman was at best a puzzle which played superficially without delving deeper aesthetically. The lack of narrative progression accompanied by an insipid soundscape and somewhat monotonous cinematography didn’t create the cinematic moments Partha expects of a film. Neither did the film impress him emotionally or intellectually.

For Amitava these apparent drawbacks cited by Sambaran and Partha were also the highpoints of this particular film. He however argued that the abruptness of the accident in the opening few moments of the film robbed off the possibility of establishing Vero as a character. Since as a character she wasn’t established upfront, her reactions thereafter had no basis to counter against.  In a sense Vero seemed rootless because of that but Amitava doubted whether wasn’t that Martel’s focal point or not?

Lucrecia Martel’s 'The Headless Woman'

Vero asking an unknown plumber to pour water on her neck

Parts of the film that will be remembered:

Partha found the moment striking when Vero reached out to a stranger plumber and asked her to pour water on her neck. Sambaran liked the cinematographic effect of rain moments after the accident when Vero stopped her car and went out of it just to ease out her anxiety and tension.

Shortly after the accident a nervous Vero stopped the car and went out of it and it started raining

Amitava loved the particular shot at the end of the film when Vero enquired the reception of the hotel to find out that there was no occupant in the room on that fateful night where she moved in with her lover after the accident. Was it then an illusion which she had all throughout? Amitava also loved Vero’s relation with Candita who was her niece. Candita was a medically indisposed young one, clearly in awe with Vero. Multiple times in the film she was shown trying to be physically intimate with Vero, mostly benign but at times having a sexual undertone as well. In the end she was compelled to announce – ‘Love-letters are either to be returned or answered’, her physical and emotional yearning towards Vero creating another wonderful moment for Amitava.

Subhadeep loved the slow motions of the film, specifically the first one when Vero’s lover and cousin (or may be her cousin’s husband or even her husband’s cousin may be) came to meet the couple to comfort Vero that she had not run over a human being for sure. The other moment was the initial scene immediately after the accident when we find tiny hand impressions of young children on the side window pane of Vero’s car. Were those of the children shown in the earlier scene? Or were they of the young boys shown to cross the road recklessly where the accident happened?

Argentinian film The Headless Woman

Tiny hand impressions of young children on the side window pane of Vero’s car

The other texts (films or otherwise) which come to mind watching this:

Subhadeep was reminded of Nuri Bilge Ceylan’s Three Monkeys although the only semblance he admitted was in the thematic similarity of an inadvertent accident. He also remembered Thomas Vinterberg’s The Hunt which also dealt with anxiety an guilt conscience and the emotional turmoil associated with the same. The questions of consciousness, vagueness, morality and the ambiguous positioning of an individual with the society and family was a recurrent underlying motif of several films of Luis Bunuel felt Amitava without mentioning any one in particular.

Silhouette rating: 6.5/10

Content: 3.5/5
Cinematography: 3.3/5
Sound: 3/5
Overall Appeal: 6.5/10

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Silhouette Recommends – Paterson

Silhouette Recommends – On Body and Soul

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Silhouette Film Society, formed in 2001 was a group of eventless youth who clubbed together in the placid afternoons of leisurely Calcutta Saturdays. They discussed cinema, argued with their PoVs, fought vociferously and loved the conundrum. Members joined and lost, to corporate bandwagons, to film schools and yet Silhouette sailed through with private film shows and an enviable magazine -  Silhouette to be proud of. Over time the print edition made way for a web magazine as the scope of the magazine expanded, members became busy, film shows were rare and confined to occasional festival meetings. Came 2018 the old musketeers regrouped again since they allowed enough nonsense with themselves. This film-viewing group of new friends and old sinners now plan to watch films regularly and write reports on them. The choice is deliberately arbitrary - an award winning film, an unexplored genius, a neo-avantgarde cacophony and what not. Masters will be exempted for greener pastures. Literally. The intention is not to shell out a film review in its typical gamut, rather this will be less formal and more personal. Silhouette recommends with ratings - so sit on the edge and enjoy the bang.
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