Monday, October 11, 2010
New Argentine Cinema: The Headless Woman
I admire many filmmakers, but I envy just a few; among them, Mike Leigh, the Dardenne Brothers, Carlos Reygandas and Lucrecia Martel. If you are familiar with their work, then you can probably guess why. Their process and methods are diverse, however, these directors do away with cinematic artifice and achieve unparalleled truthfulness on the screen. One day I hope to do the same.
After only three features Martel has firmly established herself as one of the most prodigiously talented, critically adulated, and most distinctive visionaries of contemporary cinema. Her hypnotic, mysterious, and deeply immersive films are wonderfully anti-classical, ignore the rules of cinema, confound audience expectations, fulfill personalized visions, and continually attempt to alter the visual language of cinema. Martel’s subtle, climatic, virtuous, profound and nonconventional cinema is neither made for superficial viewing nor conceived with the usual demagogy of many films trying to achieve, at any cost, immediate liking, simple direct emotion or easy applause.
Following up on her subliminally atmospheric La Ciénaga (2001) and The Holy Girl (2004), Martel delves even deeper into cinematic obliqueness with The Headless Woman and further hones the visual economy and organic (yet meticulously structured), fractal narrative of her earlier films. She builds her picture entirely around female lead Vero’s (María Onetto) distressed psychology after an automobile accident of her own making. On her way to a rendezvous with her lover Juan Manuel (Daniel Genoud) in another town, a distracted Vero reaches for her mobile phone, then collides with something on the road—the outline of a dog’s carcass visible on the far edge of the frame—and continues on for a few yards before stopping to compose herself and driving away. Vero returns to the familiar rituals of her daily life—a busy dental practice, a never-ending landscaping project, a supportive, but equally distracted husband (César Bordón)—but the cracks in her empty, privileged existence of cultivated gardens and choreographed lies begin to surface, manifesting in her increasing apprehension that she has accidentally killed somebody on that desolate road. As the days wear on, she has trouble recalling even the most basic details of her life, to the point where she appears to have amnesia. All signs point to her being in the clear, yet just when she begins to feel all right another mysterious coincidence arises that makes her doubt herself again.
Martel, an astute observer of social class, is exceptionally sensitive to class differences and experiences. In Woman, Argentina ’s class bifurcation runs far deeper and is much older than the canal that runs through the town, race is inextricably tied to class, and Martel certainly displays these concerns visually. However, much of her innovation as a filmmaker lies equally in her use of sound. Woman begins in the dark, with white titles against a black background and the sound of crickets chirping and boys' feet running across gravel; from there, Martel’s world emerges through sound: rain falling on car windows, rumbling motorcycle engines, ringing cell phones, distant, repetitive thunder, the gears of a VCR fast-forwarding a video tape, metal key chains clanging against one another.
Martel achieves essential ambiguity with detailed composition in each frame where information is plentiful but also ambiguous, enigmatic and fragmented. Her camera stares at one fixed place and simply watches the characters’ movements, sometimes switching to another person, then another, with the sequence building in that manner. The narrative lines occur in different layers within the same scene, with a character in the foreground, and others in the background entering and exciting the frame, moving towards and away from the camera, resulting in a rich juxtaposition and superimposition of themes.
Martel’s decision to maintain excessively shallow depth of field in her wide screen compositions, many of which present only Vero in focus, serves to emphasize the spatial unmooring of Vero’s psychology to the film’s narrative. In other words, it is purely Onetto's registration of the various shades of her character's anguish and discomposure that comprise the sharply-focused vectors of the mise-en-scène. More importantly, the visual compression mirrors Vero's wavering distance from other social classes, the ingrained, prevailing split between lighter-skinned, middle class citizens (like her), and the darker-skinned, lower-class citizens who work for them. Vero seems contained, detached from them, yet their blurred contours in the sides of the frames are a constant reminder that there are others on the periphery. The boy she might have killed is a poor day laborer and Vero's social isolation has been compromised while her mental anxiety escalates. Moreover, her addled psychological state finds a corollary in the film's elliptical narration, which jumps ahead with protagonist and spectator alike uncertain as to where we find ourselves and how we got there.
If Martel's cinema provokes rejection or confusion in some, it does so because the audience prefers its pre-established and perceptive system. Oblivious to any commercial strategy, here form is content and nothing has been put in the film to impress. Martel tries to detect social climates and states of mind and in an indirect and subtle way she transmits them as feelings, being certain of the eloquence of details and randomly trapped words or gestures, and relying on the sensibility of the audience more than on their mental quickness. She does not ask for our intellectual liveliness but our honest participation and sensory perception.
Each frame of Woman is a work of art in itself; a visual pleasure, a meditation full of meaning on the expressive possibilities of cinema, a virtuoso interaction among multiple textures of images and level of sounds that create palpable tension making Woman feel like a most unlikely thriller. Martel is also driven by a desire to expose the ugly divides in Argentina ’s class system and the psychological and moral costs of silence, denial, and cover-up, rendering the film as much a work of social commentary as a fine example of thought-provoking entertainment. Martel executes her film with surgical precision and deals with the mystery lying at the edge of the frame; those strange almost furtive gestures we have to interpret always according to our most intimate convictions—that absence of certainties, so uncomfortable and nevertheless exciting. Woman is a swooning, haunted enigma that demands multiple viewings and interpretations to break through its mysterious facade.