The Headless Woman (2008): think Hitchcock sans closure.

A Book Review by Thomas Puhr.

I received Gerd Gemünden’s Contemporary Film Directors: Lucrecia Martel without having seen a single film by the titular artist. To say I’ve been missing out is an understatement. The movies themselves are evidence enough of Martel’s singular vision and its significance to global cinema, but having the additional opportunity to read these analyses after watching each film has convinced me that she deserves a prominent spot in the pantheon of great 21st-century directors.

The opening chapter, “A Poetics of the Senses,” introduces Martel’s style, one in which a dense soundscape proves just as crucial as the images on screen. Emblematic of this approach is the writer-director’s preoccupation with water, which drives each of her films visually (pools, rivers, swamps, culverts), thematically (stagnation, blurred borders), and aurally (acousmatic sound) (4). Water even influences her philosophical reflections on the viewing experience. In an interview for The Criterion Collection, she likens a movie theater to a pool’s interior: its screen the surface, its audience the submerged (25).

Her auspicious debut, La ciénaga (2001), follows the goings on at a bourgeois family’s dilapidated summer home. It embodies the aforementioned focus on water (the title translates as The Swamp) and introduces what would become recurring themes in subsequent films: social decay, quasi-incestuous relationships, and systemic racism, among others. Here, Gemünden dissects Martel’s elliptical storytelling, citing a sequence in which she cuts from a child standing in a hunting rifle’s line of fire “to the farm with people standing around the pool while a shot rings out from the hills…. Rather than cutting back to the mountain, viewers are left to worry, until a few minutes later Luciano [the child] appears in a different scene completely unhurt” (42). These ambiguous physical and temporal shifts beguile and frustrate in equal measure.

Sandwiched between La ciénaga and the genre-infused offerings that would follow, Martel’s sophomore effort, La niña santa (The Holy Girl, 2004), is perhaps her most overlooked work. Early in the narrative, Dr. Jano (Carlos Belloso) publicly assaults a young girl, Amalia (María Alché); like all of the films in question, though, the plot is but a piece of a complex whole. Consider, for example, Gemünden’s explication of the molestation scene: “Jano’s illicit contact happens while Amalia and the rest of the crowd are listening to an instrument [the theremin] that is played by not making physical contact” (54). One of this text’s great strengths is how the author parses out such multisensory ironies.

2008’s La mujer sin cabeza (The Headless Woman) tracks the mental deterioration of Verónica (María Onetto), who is plagued by uncertainty after a mysterious hit-and-run accident. This film aligns itself more closely with genre tropes and “creates a form of contrast and suspense not found in the previous two features. The opening’s intercutting of two separate scenes, which are then conjoined in the third, builds toward the initial climax, the collision” (75). The author draws some incisive parallels with Alfred Hitchcock (citing Verónica’s curly blonde hair as an echo of Kim Novak’s blonde swirl in Vertigo) but is quick to point out how Martel mostly upends genre expectations (79). Think Hitchcock sans closure; it should come as no surprise that we never definitively know what Verónica hit with her car.

Midbook, Gemünden pauses to consider Martel’s nearly decade-long absence from feature filmmaking after The Headless Woman. He briefly analyzes three of her shorts, but most of this chapter addresses her aborted efforts to adapt a graphic novel, El Eternauta, to the big screen. Though the project never came to fruition, Gemünden asserts that it paved the way for what would become her latest film: “both Zama and El Eternauta revolve around a male protagonist lost in time and space” (105).

Just as The Headless Woman is not your typical psychological thriller, Zama is not your typical period piece. The film takes many creative liberties with Antonio Di Benedetto’s 1956 novel, which follows the titular 18th-century magistrate indefinitely stranded in a rural outpost of the Spanish Empire (106). For example, its multisensory aesthetic subverts (and replaces) the novel’s first-person narration: “Instead, she opted for a plethora of off-screen sounds, which apart from the natural audio track include inscrutable noises, indistinguishable voices, and fragments of dialogue” (115). What ultimately emerges is a historical tale that somehow exists outside of history and makes no attempt at realistically representing “the past,” a dubious proposition to begin with; in other words, Martel’s distinct voice shines through despite the project’s superficial differences from her previous works.

A book that meticulously explicates a handful of films risks devolving into tedium, but Gemünden’s approachable, yet thorough prose successfully avoids this common flaw. Martel’s oeuvre is so dense that it practically demands such analyses, and the author rises to the challenge, making some truly revelatory insights that connect the films in unexpected ways. For example, he persuasively outlines how a seemingly random anecdote (a supernatural tale involving a car accident) told in La niña santa unites all three installments of the so-called “Salta Trilogy.” “[T]he story of the accident…harks back to the supernatural tale of the rat/dog from La ciénaga,” while a related scene in which characters “are almost hit by an oncoming truck…[anticipates] the car accident of La mujer sin cabeza” (60-61).

These are the types of connecting observations critics should strive to discover and share. After watching Martel’s films and reading the accompanying essays, I feel that I perceive movies a bit differently now, especially in how I listen to them. I’m grateful to have had Gemünden to guide me along the way.

Thomas Puhr lives in Chicago, where he teaches English and language arts. A regular contributor to Bright Lights Film Journal, he has published “‘Mysterious Appearances’ in Jonathan Glazer’s Identity Trilogy: Sexy BeastBirth and Under the Skin” in issue 15.2 of Film International.

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