La Mujer Sin Cabeza / The Headless Woman (2008)

The Headless Woman

Foaming with hit-and-run guilt, Lucrecia Martel’s La Mujer Sin Cabeza is a murky swamp of middle-class morals. These troubled waters run deep.

La Mujer Sin Cabeza

Don’t Lie For Me, Argentina by Mark Wilshin

CAUTION: Here be spoilers

Released in Argentina in 2008, it’s taken a while for La Mujer Sin Cabeza to percolate its way onto UK cinema screens. And at times it’s easy to see why; dazzling, but austere and dialogue-light, the film meanders through one woman’s post-traumatic nightmare, wilfully opaque. And yet, its stream of veiled looks and unspoken desires uncovers a vision of Argentine society stripped embarrassingly naked. Pornographically so.

Heralded as a leading light in the wave of New Argentine Cinema with her debut feature La Ciénaga in 2001, Lucrecia Martel’s heart still lies in the Andean foothill town of Salta “La Linda”. Despite familiar tropes of anti-indian bourgeois women, sexually awakening teenage girls and the ramshackle town of Ciénaga, Martel still manages to divine something astoundingly fresh from these murky if well-tapped springs.

While dirty-blond Vero, played with stunning disorientation by Maria Onetto, is in many ways a descendent of the traumatised, upper middle-class women of La Ciénaga and La Niña Santa, her amnesiac confusion following a motor accident recreates an almost amniotic innocence in her. Her ground-zero bewilderment at running over a German shepherd dog (or is it an Amerindian boy? Or both?) petrifies her; she cannot even look in the rear-view mirror to see what or who she has killed. Or how badly she has cut herself. Excised of all morals, she abandons the car round the corner and waits for an ambulance before slipping out of the hospital, checking into a hotel and having happenstance sex with her sister’s husband.

Catatonic, Vero is unable to function as mother, daughter, friend or dentist. There is no place for her in society, no role. Shutting herself off from her loved ones, Vero is cast adrift in a moral no-man’s land, overcome with the pain and guilt of killing. She tries to comfort herself by returning to the scene of the collision, only to find the dog’s corpse, the uncertainty stretching her to breaking point. Unable to become her old self again, she hides behind her sunglasses, her voice unrecognisable. Loud noises send her reeling, like the sound of a boy crashing into a football fence. Tearful and afraid, Vero has lost all composure. She’s lost her head.

Her headlessness however is not just apathy. Waking up to the fact there may be more corpses on her via dolorosa than just a dead dog, the men in her life take over. Her husband has the car patched up, her brother takes care of the hospital records, her brother-in-law the hotel ledger. This bourgeois cover-up turns the victim, a hare-lipped mestizo boy, into another of Argentina’s disappeared, wantonly missing. While los desaparacidos were political dissidents to the Peronistas, the divide here is social; an anti-indian racism polemicised in all of Martel’s films. Menial servants, potmakers or carwashers, these mestizos are for their middle-class masters tamed savages to be brusquely brushed away when the job’s done or kept at bay with high fences and electric car windows. Even Martel’s film disavows the indian boy’s death, showing neither a corpse nor his family’s anguish, focussing entirely on the caliginous conscience of the middle class.

While Vero might be able to ease her conscience, buying Quechua pots to decorate her garden or donating T-shirts to a ragamuffin indian boy, she cannot cleanse herself of her wrongdoings. She longs for traces of her crime to bubble up. Instead, only tears surface, drowning her as she tries to make sense of her guilt, own it or overcome it.  As in La Ciénaga and La Niña Santa, water is a permeating metaphor, seeping out through broken pipes and overflowing canals. As part of the Argentine infrastructure, the water system is a symbol of community and its systemic dysfunction; the rust and chlorine affecting the delicate airs of the bourgeoisie while unseen indian corpses block canals. The buried swimming pool in Vero’s back garden conflates these floating notions of watery graves and middle-class guilt swept under the carpet; unable to confess to her crimes, Vero’s guilt remains buried.

Dyeing her bleached hair a lustrous raven black, the final reel marks Vero’s return to the land of the living. She has resumed her role as philanthropic dentist and mother to her returning daughters, learning to live with her dirty conscience. Her final breakdown in the hotel toilets is a cathartic farewell to her lost innocence as she chooses the peaceful life and her family of accomplices over justice. Her grief, finally, is not for the hare-lipped indian boy she may have killed, but for herself.

Through tinted glass doors or rain-spattered windscreens, La Mujer Sin Cabeza is a visual swell of silhouettes and distracted faces in profile. But like Vero, we learn to see through the obscurity and guilt-tainted darkness to understand the current of emotions below the surface. Through these murky waters we see a racist, snobbish Argentine society emerge, above the law and beyond the pail. Only the truth remains submerged.

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