Almost immediately, in Lucrecia Martel’s The Headless Woman (2009), the road in the prologue—Indigenous children chasing each other with their dog across the road, down into a culvert—becomes the site of perceptual uncertainty and the source of moral questioning that foregrounds the film. Verónica (María Onetto), distracted by her ringing cell phone, reaches down, scavenging for it when she hits something. Slamming on the breaks, Vero, as her family calls her, takes a few minutes to compose herself. Adjusting her sunglasses, she furtively glances at the side-view mirror, a perspective the viewer is not privy to, but a shot that reveals the smudge of small hand marks haunting her window. She waits, moving her hands over her steering wheel, touching her chest before turning the car on and driving away to the upbeat tune Solei, Solei blaring from her radio. A shot through the dusty rear window shows what appears to be a dead dog, presumably the dog that had been running with the children in the opening sequence. Vero stops further down the road, stepping outside to inspect her car; raindrops fall with gravitas on the foregrounded windshield that beheads Vero—an eponymous recurring shot in The Headless Woman. Dazed enervation overcomes Vero as she drifts through a few days punctuated by a visit to the hospital, a night at a hotel, and torrential rainfalls. Finally, her slow-spreading trauma amounts to a confession, and Vero tells her husband she killed a child in a hit-and-run.
The conundrum in the Headless Woman is not the tenuousness of perception—did she kill a dog or a child, were there two thumps, could the child have rolled down into the culvert, did she see something the viewer didn’t—but how Vero responds to the belief that she killed someone. Morality is a recurring preoccupation of Martel’s that envelops the characters of La Cienega (2001), La Niña Santa (2004), and The Headless Woman (2009): her Salta trilogy named eponymously after the northwestern region where the films are set and where Martel grew up. And the upper-middle-class Argentine family is the locus of Martel’s exploration into morality. These films replace a judicial understanding of morality predicated on right and wrong with an entangled understanding of morality; laws ensconced in race and gender and class are the norms shaping behavior in her films. In Vero’s mind, she killed a child, and while guilt trails behind her like a ghost, her actions call upon her class status for impunity.
Unlike Martel’s previous films, where the narrative moves between a platoon of characters, Vero is the protagonist we follow. But beheading close-up shots and asymmetrical framing of mise-en-scene eliminate any semblance of perspective stability that might accompany a protagonist. Echoing Virginia Woolf’s thoughts on illness, Martel states, “Our perception is educated – sometimes extreme events disorient the body so that you perceive something different” (in Guillen 2009). The social mechanism that the hit-and-run brings into question is most obtuse in the role the menfolk assume—the verbal denying of Vero’s experience is palpable misogyny, but Martel’s social commentary runs deeper than gender. Vero’s husband, cousin, and lover brush off her perceived truth as something she imagined. But their meticulous erasure of any evidence that could link Vero to the dead child found a few days later in the culvert—after the torrential rains—is a manifestation of power and symptom of oppression.
The insidiousness of class protection is that it is elusive and Martel captures this protective machine pointedly. Vero’s husband immediately repairs the car; her cousin calls his police friends to inquire about missing persons; Vero learns that her hospital records have disappeared and that the hotel she slept in after the accident doesn’t have a register of her stay. The expunction is unnerving because it happens outside of the gaze and is banal. The mechanism of power that works to erase Vero’s whereabouts is simultaneously responsible for the erasure of marginalized people whose deaths go uninvestigated by officials—a symptom of a racist society that protects some while erasing others.
The child’s death is neither attributed to Vero or the rainstorms because the veracity of Vero’s perception is not the primary concern; the consequences of her perceived truth are of import. Vero’s guilt dissipates with the disappeared evidence, illustrating a socio-economic class’s power to disavow the responsibility of an individual. Vero walks through hazed glass doors to congregate with her family in the closing scene. And the viewer is left behind, looking at people who are only discernable as blurry figures.
“James Quandt on Lucrecia Martel’s the Headless Woman.” Www.artforum.com, www.artforum.com/print/200906/lucrecia-martel-s-the-headless-woman-22957.
Martin, Deborah. Cinema of Lucrecia Martel. Manchester University Press, 2030.
Taubin, Amy. “Interview: Lucrecia Martel.” Film Comment, www.filmcomment.com/article/shadow-of-a-doubt-lucrecia-martel-interviewed/. Accessed 8 Apr. 2021.