2017 Film Essays

Framing the Breakdown: Visual Psychosis in Lucrecia Martel’s ‘The Headless Woman’

SPOILERS

One of the greatest strengths of Lucrecia Martel’s The Headless Woman (La mujer sin cabeza) just may be its ability to say an incredible amount without the need to verbalise anything at all. Hailed as a masterpiece of its time, and a seminal text in the Argentinean New Wave, Martel’s film explores the internal breakdown of a middle class woman after she hits something whilst driving her car out on a isolated road. First believing it to be a dog, but slowly forced to confront another possible chain of events, Martel’s protagonist slowly becomes the “headless woman” of the title.

Headlessness — meaning, to lose one’s head in times of crisis or confusion — is closely related to ideas about hysteria, particularly in women. Historically, the term “hysteria” has been used to dismiss worries, concerns or fears from women as a way of shutting down legitimate conversation or debate. They are simply written off as hysterical. In Martel’s film, the concept of hysteria and its traditional alignment with women is woven directly into the narrative. Hysteria often connotes screaming, crying or wailing, and whilst it’s true that Martel’s protagonist Veronica (or Vero) is stoically silent, there can be no doubt that her troubling thoughts are entertained by her family, friends and lover as hysteria. She has, in a sense, lost her head.

The Headless Woman gives little insight into its characters, including Veronica (Maria Onetto). She is introduced only a few minutes before her car accident, and the information about her revealed afterwards is neither extensive nor explanatory. After hitting the object (dog or person), Veronica goes to the hospital. She meets her husband’s cousin, Juan, in a hotel room where the two of them have sex. It’s unclear whether this is the first time this has happened, meaning there is little to insinuate from this relationship. Is this the first sign of Veronica’s guilt manifesting, or is this a part of who she was before? It’s almost impossible to know.

Veronica says relatively little throughout the film. Martel’s dialogue is sparse and limited, preferring to use visual cues to explore Veronica’s breakdown rather than explaining it directly to other characters, or to the audience. She begins as a woman who stands out; a unique soloist among a drab chorus of family members and friends. The visuals represent this best — Veronica has platinum blonde hair, a far cry from the typical brunette Argentinian. It’s made clear in the script that this is a deliberate decision by Veronica, as many of the other characters make comments on her newly dyed hair, remarking on how well it suits her, and how modern it is.

In a real sense, Veronica’s hair is a metaphor for her mental state. Sleek, shiny and Westernised for 1970s Argentina, the blonde represents Veronica as the person she wants to be — the person she wants the world to see. Post car accident, Veronica begins to neglect her hair and personal style. Towards the end of the film, this culminates in her reverting back to what one assumes was her original hair style — dark brown. She is almost indistinguishable from the other women in her family, drawing into the background. She is distilled and dampened. Her spark appears to have gone out.

This physical change coincides seamlessly with Veronica’s breakdown due to her strengthened belief that she is a murderer. Onotto, who gives a phenomenal performance, utilises small glances and tiny alterations in Veronica’s body language to convey hints at what Veronica may be thinking or feeling. Long before she admits to her husband and Juan that she may have killed a child, her facial expressions have already revealed most of this to the audience. Without any spoken declaration, Onotto invites the camera (and therefore the audience) to try and understand her thought process.

As the guilt slowly drives Veronica into a descent of quiet madness, she ends up retracing her steps and discovers that the hospital has no record of her being admitted, and the hotel room she had stayed in was empty that night. Did any of it happen? This speck of doubt means that anything learnt about Veronica is sharply cast under suspicion. Can we really even trust this character? Despite the lack of spoken words, Veronica has become one of the most unreliable narrators in cinema. Hysteria, it seems, may have consumed her.

Though Martel may be accused of being heavy handed with her symbolism and metaphors, it is impossible not to buy into them. Her use of the camera to divide Veronica up is just another one of the techniques she employs to convey Veronica’s fractured mental state. After the accident, Veronica is rarely shot in one piece — sometimes only her right half is in frame, sometimes it is only her face, sometimes just her lower body. This often coincides in Veronica being shot through glass, or via a mirror, reinforcing how she sees herself changing.

Shooting Veronica behind windows, or through glass doors is a permanent reminder of her accident. Veronica viewed the object she had run over through her back windscreen (which was dirty), making the image unclear. Had she viewed it with her own eyes, she may have had certainty about what or whom she had hit. Glass is a constant reminder of a change of perception — that things may not be the way they appear. It’s by no accident that the film ends on translucent glass doors, behind which Veronica and her family are gathered for a celebration.

In keeping with Martel’s preference for heavy-handed yet incredibly effective symbolism, Veronica’s accident can be read as an allegory for the rich-poor gap in Argentina, at its height in the 1970s when The Headless Woman is set. Bourgeois Veronica appears to try and forget that her accident ever happened and subsequently becomes plagued with horrible thoughts and an overwhelming feelings of guilt. It’s likely that Martel is making a statement on the invisible guilt of the Argentine middle classes for their ignorance and complicity in allowing the poor to quite literally die. Veronica, from shock or from a unwillingness to face up to her actions, is a perfect example of this. Instead of facing up to the responsibility of potentially killing a child, she instead tries to minimise the damage. Subtle? No, but Martel’s film is an absolute masterpiece in visual symbolism and deserves to be seen on that basis alone.

Becky Kukla (@kuklamoo) spends her days working in TV and writing about cinema and feminism. Based in London, she also likes drinking gin, re-watching ‘The X Files’ and writing about on-screen representation at femphile.com. She’s also a regular contributor at Bitch Flicks and Film Inquiry.

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