Headless Woman, The: Lucrecia Martel’s Third Feature (La Cienaga, Holy Girl)

“The Headless Woman,” the third feature by Lucrecia Martel, leading director of the new Argentinian cinema, is her most original to date, a disorienting serio comedy about a middle-aged woman’s confusion and anomie after a bizarre car accident


Lucretia Martle has become a regular Cannes Film Fest director.  Her feature debut “La Cienága” played in the Directors Fortnight and her sophomore film, “The Holy Girl” (my favorite of the three) played in the main competition.   Martel’s films play the festival circuit (New York, Toronto), but her name is still little known outside the art world.

The first, mesmerizing scene depicts a middle-aged woman named Vero (Maria Onetto) driving her Mercedes alone on a remote, barren road.  During the ride, she becomes distracted and runs over something; she is not sure what her car has hit, it could be a dog or perhaps even a child, as her haunted memory signals later.

After this jarring incident, Vero is emotionally disconnected from most of the individuals and routine events in her life.  Martel the writer is shrewd enough not to present a clear, clinical case of amnesia or nervous breakdown, as most American writer and directors would.  Instead, she depicts a somewhat mysterious but likable and sympathetic women, who becomes obsessed with the possibility that she may have killed someone or something, and continues to hold so even after the police reassures her that there were no accidents reported in the area. 

Among other issues, “Headless Woman” probes the role of women–bourgeois, upscale women–in a world that’s pretty much male-governed.  As a product of the South American haute bourgeoisie, the blonde and bland heroine is always perfectly coiffed, made-up, and dressed.  She is a woman whose seemingly perfect life may be a dream since her entire existence lacks the kin of “reality” as most people know it.

The tale, which is effective as a social satire of a particular social milieu and a character study, is compelling but strange and occasionally even oblique.  Gradually, we realize that Vero must have been sleepwalking through a dreamlike life in all of her capacities, as a dentist, a wife, and adulteress, though Martel refuses to explain her in terms of simplistic psychology or any other terms.


But it displays the formal control of an intelligent and alert director, with its meticulously constructed images and scrupulously brilliant editing.  And the fascination of the film may reside more in Martel’s technical mastery and original strategies than in the substance of the plot per se.


The film’s form, style and mood are congruent in highlighting the central issue of moral and social disorientation.  In its surreal and hyper-real touches, “The Headless Woman” recalls some of the works of the late and great Luis Buñuel and David Lynch. 

With its deliberate pacing, formal compositions, fragmented images and shifting tone, “Headless Woman” is a not an easy film to watch, and the press screening I attended at Cannes Fest last year had quite a few walkouts among critics.  But I assure you that it you endure, you’ll be rewarded with an interesting film you can’t compare to any other film.

End Note:  Lucrecia Martel about the Origins of her Movie


The best thing about traveling by land is to refrain from sleeping and to listen.  I very seldom have nightmares but when I have them, the main theme in general is that I killed someone. In my nightmares I am an assassin, and I wake up crying because I no longer believe in God, who could be the only one capable of comforting me with his mercy. The only one I respect. Then I dry my tears and feel that I am a good person, that it has all been a bad dream and that I would never kill anyone.


One night I dreamt that I killed a man with a stick. I got rid of the body but could not get rid of the head. I was in a hurry to go to work, so I put the man’s head on a kitchen shelf. I would take care of it when I came back from work. When I got back in the evening, there was a not from my father on the table. It was that time when my father would come to the city on business and would fly back home in the evening. The note said: “I arranged your kitchen shelf. Love, Daddy.”


Sure enough, the kitchen shelf now had a false bottom and behind it was the well-concealed head of the dead man. I woke up crying “what a great family I have! What unconditional love! I had the urge to call all my siblings, my parents; I could not wait to see them. You should meet them. Last night I dreamt again. I was coming out of my Grandma’s house after a visit and, when looking for my car keys in my purse, I found a black hand. Dark skin. I realized I killed a black woman. The keys in my purse are not my car keys but the keys to an apartment where I am going and where I know the body is. I woke up crying a screaming.

– Who did the hand belong to?

– I guess the maid’s. Poor thing.

– And you never cry for the people you killed?

– Well, I hardly know them.


My movie was created in the vapor of this conversation.