Deaf Ears and Tell-Tale Hearts
Lucrecia Martel’s film is of course about the problem of guilt, but its freshness lies in its exploration of micro-structures in our lives. This issue of culpability is especially pressing it seems if our relationship with those structures are above them rather than below them, and in this sense The Headless Woman is nothing if not a film about class. Vero (Maria Onetti) runs over something one afternoon after trying to answer her mobile phone, and instead of stopping to find out what she hit, she drives on. Later she goes quite literally to have her head examined, and over time confronts what she believes she was responsible for. This is the death of a young boy, even though it would seem, on the basis of what we see but that she doesn’t, she has run over a dog: that the boy’s death is merely a coincidence.
This is the bare bones of the plot, and indeed the film doesn’t give us much more narrative momentum. What interests Martel is attentiveness to the peripheral, and this is so clearly evident in sound and framing, that it is as though Martel wants, like Antonioni, a couple of generations before her, to understand the moral problems of society through the aesthetic problems of cinema. Does conventional sound and framing too readily centre us in the cinematic world, too readily leave us attending to the dead centre of character and plot so that any moral problems become dead-centred also? Perhaps this dead-centring wouldn’t be such a problem if we were all placed at the centre of the culture in which we’re living – in a loosely classless society – but as Martel’s film explores, some function below the line, others ‘dysfunction’ above it. Vero, we may surmise, dysfunctions above the line, and in this the film not only shares similarities with a number of Antonioni’s works, but resembles also Todd Haynes’ Safe, where a woman’s inability to act, her encompassing neuroses, can’t be separated from the air-conditioned nightmare that is her wealthy LA suburban life. Here Vero also has people constantly attending to her needs, and the film’s peripheral sense of framing and sound is especially effective in capturing a life going on around one that concerns the person socially but barely at all personally.
What we’ve set in motion then is an approach to the film that shows someone who believes she may have committed an horrific act of manslaughter, but where the film’s concern resides in a more horrific sense of its containment within bourgeois life. Vero is a citizen above suspicion partly because of her place as a very comfortable member of the middle-classes (she’s a dentist; her brother a doctor), and partly because the person she believes she has killed is a member of a social class whose life or death is generally perceived as no more significant than an absent pair of hands. A boy is found dead shortly after the incident and the boy it turns out was meant to help lug some vases from a shop to her house.
Yet it is important not to see the film simply as a subtle examination of the beastliness of the bourgeoisie; otherwise we still have a stale message, however politically justifiable, accompanying a freshness of form. If Martel is one of the world’s most significant young filmmakers, it needs to reside in the originality of form revealing an equally revelatory sense of ethical exploration. The originality of form leads to freshness of ethos; the freshness of ethos leads to originality of form. This is why we think it is useful to insist that the film isn’t simply a work of character subjectivity, but a film exploring reality from the edge of an ethical, physical and mental abyss. In his Vertigo review David Sin says “of course the film’s imagery replicates the perspective of the lead character”, but is this really the case (even if it chimes with some of Martel’s comments on the film) and, if so, wouldn’t it be yet another example of a Mindscreen film as Bruce Kawin once defined it, as he differentiated between various approaches to subjectivity – voice-over, point of view, and thought process – with the latter an example of Mindscreen? It is this third type of subjectivity Sin seems to be invoking, and it is the case that Martel herself hints at it, when saying “in the beginning [after the accident] the soundtrack is full of sounds, and then less and less as she steps back into reality.” But to push the subjective too far would be to arrive at a relative conservatism of form to go along with what some might see as the antithesis – a radical political statement – where we’re searching out the film’s attempt neither to be psychologically subjective nor politically radical, by working in an interstitial place that can say a great deal about a woman’s confusion, and no less about a social situation.
This is why we have talked about the importance of structures in Vero’s life. Here is a woman who can live life in a semi-daze partly because of the others who dictate the actions in it. Whether this happens to be her brother, lover or husband, in a socially authoritative manner, or the maids and servants in a subordinate way, Vero seems to be a woman without substance, and the film searches out that insubstantiality by looking at both the psychological and the socio-political. This is the nature of the question: how to show a woman without substance, how to explore her place in the world? On a formal level central to it is the use of delayed, asynchronous sound, and a partial framing that often leaves Vero on the edge or outside the frame at moments where we would expect her to be central. In one scene for example she returns to her house and we see her in partial view as she dips her head under the shower and gets dressed. This gives us undeniably an askew perspective on Vero and her world, but is it more fruitful to see it as her fragile perspective on the world, or to see it as her fragile place within the world? We opt for the latter as it gives us the opportunity to see the film as a structural investigation of a life rather than a subjective account. Yet Martel’s genius here is also within this structural investigation to fret empathically over Vero’s entrapment. It isn’t only about the awful complacency of bourgeois living, but also the encased nature of social being.
One senses this from the early scenes of Vero and her friends trying to get all the kids into the cars after they’ve been swimming. There is asynchronicity here, as the words on the soundtrack don’t always seem to match the images, and sometimes we’re unsure whether we’re hearing an off-screen voice referring to on-screen events or a personal thought process. This could be the director determining subjective perspective, or it could be the animation of its absence: it would be what Heidegger would call the babble, and what nouveau roman novelist Nathalie Sarraute in The Age of Suspicion noticed when saying that the “centre of gravity of the novel has moved.” The dialogue is “the outward continuation of subterranean movements which the author – and with him the reader – must make at the same time as the character, from the moment they form until the moment when, having been forced to the surface by their increasing intensity, to reach the other person and protect themselves from exterior dangers, they cloak themselves in protective capsules of words.” When Sarraute adds that because the modern novel is dialogue based, one has no need of quotation marks, and can certainly rid ourselves of he saids and she saids, this is partly because of the superficiality of speech – that it doesn’t belong to the self but to the social world.
Now this isn’t an article however about structuralism and language, per se, nor about how Martel manages to work some of the experiments of the nouveau roman novelists into her own vision. It is more to note there are certain preoccupations here that can be explored less through genealogical analysis, through tracing the film’s theoretical history, than casual probing. Martel seems not to want to embody language in her characters; it is as though all dialogue is socially oriented and that to embody dialogue readily within a categorical self, Martel would be denying herself the opportunity to explore the problem of subjectivity not from the inside – then the film could be more fruitfully called the headful woman – but from the outside: from the limited subjectivity required to live the life she leads. If Vero believes she has committed manslaughter, can become absent-minded in her life and work, and still function coherently as a comfortably off middle-class wife, where ought the self to exist?
This is the pressing ethical question that sits within Martel’s form, and it takes her beyond politics without remotely arriving at the apolitical. It asks out of the political problematic what sort of being would someone like Vero be left with? If she is the headless woman this ought to have less to do with her mind full of fractured thoughts that is the film, than a mind absent of socio-political concerns. What the film does so well is to create an empathic space for Vero’s dislocation, but at the same time a critical space for examining the social situation. This is a world where social situations have no depth; or rather that the expectations of society create shallow individuals. Whether it is the husband blind to her affair, or servants anonymously going about their household duties, Martel presents a structured society that cannot countenance social mobility and emotional fracture. Vero’s misdemeanour would seem to have repercussions that can’t be confronted personally and socially, as Vero must accept the terms upon which she lives in society, and the boy’s death can become merely an aberration in a comfortable life. Whether or not that will be how Vero deals with it into the future is a moot point, and if her dislocation doesn’t quite pass for confrontation, it can be seen as ongoing disturbance. As we see her in the latter stages of the film passing by the shanty town where the boy lived, as we see her going to the hospital only to find that there is no record of her visit, as she visits the hotel where she slept with her lover and again there is no suggestion she had been there in the recent past, so her sense of enquiry is matched by her sense of immunity, as though all traces have been removed.
However, there is an interesting passage from Jung’s Memories, Dreams and Reflections which would seem relevant to Martel’s film. Here he talks of a wealthy woman who once poisoned her best friend because she wanted to marry the friend’s husband. She went on to marry the man, and several years into the marriage he died. Over the years the woman found that everyone and everything started to shrink from her presence, including the horses that she could no longer ride as even her favourite horse would throw her. Jung explains that she came to him to offload the burden onto someone. By keeping it so completely to herself she had denied her own humanity – the murder was exacerbated by her subsequent feeling of inhumanity: her alienation from others through the secret. She went to Jung to have nothing else than an honest encounter with another human being. Jung didn’t know her name and never saw her again. Vero’s problem is subtler and socially more problematic, and this is why we’re inclined to invoke the significance of the societal structures over individual ethics. In Jung’s story the woman acts with full motive, and withholds the secret for years. Vero here kills accidentally, and it would seem ‘only’ a dog, and at various points tries to tell other people that she believes she may have killed someone. In Jung’s story we have the problem of the individual; in Martel’s the problem of society. This is a culpable society, Martel seems to be saying, and within this structure we watch a weak woman shaped by it even when the potential enormousness of event would seem to undermine that structure. If at the end of the film we retain sympathy for Vero as she parties at a bar, this lies in the contrast between a weak woman trying to confront her conscience and a strong society determined to bury any hint of responsibility. If the woman who came to Jung remained strong minded for years as she married the dead friend’s husband, and gave way only in relation to the signs in her life that reflected her own alienation, Vero seems alienated the moment the accident happens, perhaps even before the accident taking into account the way Martel sets up the conversation between the women and kids quoted above as babble.
Now when Jung says in relation to killing another that “one who commits such a crime destroys his own soul. The murderer has already passed sentence on himself”, we may wonder what crimes society commits in its name whether directly or indirectly. Martel wants to find a place between the guilt of the self and the culpability of the society, by dealing with a much more disconnected action. What we have after all is a woman who seems to run over a dog believing she has run over a child, and a woman who also notices that so determined is everyone to remove her responsibility for the deed she believes she may have committed, that the thought and deed are as attenuated as possible.
In an interview with Jason Wood in Talking Movies, Martel says “I think the idea of the family contains so much…exclusion, racism. There are so many negative values around the family that when the family is dissolved I don’t think it is necessarily a bad thing. What I do think is that a person can’t be disconnected.” This is an interview after the release of her previous films, La Cienaga and La nina santa, but that speaks even more directly about The Headless Woman. Vero is someone who has the family, but is not connected, and this is part of the structural problem the film addresses. How to be connected on terms that aren’t especially familial, social and predictable? If the film is a study of a citizen above suspicion, it is also a tragedy about a woman with a misplaced sense of guilt, perhaps, but where in the very sense of its misplacing the problem resides. She may be wrong that she has killed a child, but she may be right to feel guilty about something. If we’re reluctant to go with a reading that insists the film is a subjective vision, then this is because the film’s tragedy resides in the fragility of the self against the structures that prop it up. An overly subjective vision would allow these structures to be but a by-product of the woman’s mind, when what surely matters is the problem of her fragility within the wider social context.
For example in the scene near the end of the film where she goes to the hotel and they have no record of her stay there the previous week, we could choose to see this as a problem of subjectivity and memory. She is the unreliable narrator who forces us to question what is truth and what is fiction, what is real and what is fantasy. But this is the sort of narrative trickery of A Beautiful Mind, Fight Club and The Sixth Sense, and Martel’s film possesses a chilling aspect much greater than narrative ploys. Is it not more useful to see her subjectivity as possibly having shaped the reality we have seen, but more probably having it shaped by those around her? When the film gives us the shot of the dog after she runs something over, perhaps Martel is being more obvious than if she gave us no shot at all. But what is important is that Vero doesn’t look round to see what seems to have happened, and that nobody has witnessed the event. Thus when near the end of the film the husband says he has had the car fixed, and insists that she couldn’t have run over a human being for the damage was quite minimal, are we supposed to interpret this as a skilful deduction of the evidence, or a denial of the possible situation? What seems to matter is not the epistemological problem of the truth – the viewer may claim to be satisfied with the idea that she has run over a dog – but the ethical problem of trying to make sure no one takes responsibility for their lives.
Earlier we invoked Safe, but another couple of films come to mind in relation to the problematic we believe the film is working with; the problematic of bourgeois denial in relation to relative comfort. In the more explicit Michael Haneke film, Benny’s Video, the middle-class parents will go to any lengths to protect their son from the dismal future that awaits him after the video-fixated boy kills a young girl on camera. In Time Out, a man pretends that he has a job and manages to convince his family he’s been gainfully employed for years while he hangs around filling stations, hotels and offices. In The Headless Woman, Safe, Benny’s Video and Time Out all four films in very different ways ask questions about the complacency of middle-class life through an investigation into the appropriate modes in bourgeois existence. In Time Out, for example, the lie is sustained by a certain existential indifference to the specifics of someone’s life. It is as if a ruse is only as developed as the indifference of the society out of which it comes; if more questions were asked, if more concern were offered, or interest shown, one suspects the ingenuity wouldn’t be enough. In Safe, if Julianne Moore’s character could have moved towards greater health through her own actions, or perhaps through others’ comprehension, then she may not have ended up with the curious disease she’s afflicted by. If she had found purposeful work, or purposeful people, the problem may have gone away, or never manifested itself.
In each instance the film’s purpose shouldn’t be to damn the bourgeoisie, especially, but to enquire into the nature of a situation that would seem to come out of bourgeois culture. This is, if you like, symptomatic blame, a critique of the structural principles behind the society rather than merely a critique of the bourgeois individual and their world. (Indeed, all three of Martel’s films are set in the same city Salta, in the north of Argentina, but when critics ask if she dislikes the place she insists she loves it: people just need shaken up.) For example, if a film simply criticises the society, it may appear to be doing so from a position of envy: from a place that attacks the lives without quite attacking the lifestyle. The good life remains intact and also it seems the problem of individuals and their mores. But often a less devastating critique can be more penetrating, and so Martel doesn’t so much attack as enquire. Again a comment from the interview with Wood seems relevant. “Religious education doesn’t just mean a lot of repressive nonsense that is so readily associated with Catholicism, but a real vision of the world. If you abandon it, you need to construct another vision.” When she abandoned Catholicism as a teenager Martel moved towards “the possibility of a social order which is in keeping with the body. That totally changes one’s set of values.”
This is central to the achievement of The Headless Woman, though it may appear a paradoxical one. On the one hand Martel explores as we’ve suggested the structures of bourgeois life in which Vero is trapped, but on the other the film attends to the incidentals of another possible existence. When at the end of the film Vero goes to a party we could wonder is this her once again integrating into her social circle, or is her alienation from that circle part of the new life as Martel would seem to define it? Is her head-lessness a move toward heart-fulness, as we’ve seen her through the course of the film fail to function in her usual environment? This is where the potentially abstract critique meets the concrete realisation as a woman from a particular social class appears to be increasingly alienated from it as those around her try and reaffirm her place in the good life. For her husband and her lover her reaction to the incident might seem like over-sensitivity, but it is this very over-sensitive place that so interests the director. When she talks of a social order which is in keeping with the body, it is as if a shock to the nervous system can lead to a questioning of the wider system of values one lives by.
Through much of the film, Vero moves through conventional spaces with an unconventional body language, captured with a visual style that plays up this estrangement. When her lover drops her off after their assignation at a hotel, Vero enters her own home as though a stranger. As she moves around the space, Martel shows Vero entering empty frames from below and the side, with her back to the camera, and key parts of her body cropped within the shot. For example when we see her looking out of the window, we can accept the convention of the shot from behind because the character happens to be looking outside, and to show a reverse angle of that shot so that we can see her face from the garden looking out of the window would seem unnecessary. But to eschew the frontal angle and at the same time show only part of her head and her shoulders creates an off-centred world, as if one she cannot quite re-enter. Martel shows Vero going into her own house as though a thief, and films the space to play up that strangeness within familiarity. If most films show a character entering their own space with assurance, and utilise a camera style to reflect that assurance, Martel undermines the coherence of the space to reflect the fractured mindset of the character.
Yet this isn’t quite the same thing as claiming Martel’s work is a product of her central character’s subjectivity, which would endanger both the ethos at work and the film’s politics. The Headless Woman is both a political and an ethical film as it attends peripherally to the politics and centrally to Vero’s body in space. An overly subjective perspective could lead to us wondering about the reliability of her point of view and consequently call into question everything that we have seen. What makes the film interesting though is not subjectivity itself, but a burgeoning perspective trying to understand a bourgeois world that has little interest in subjectivity. There is a dialectical quality to Martel’s work that needs to keep objective and subjective worlds in balance. When Martel says what interests her “…is that contradictory area between what is organic and perceptible, and moral laws, or laws in general…” (Talking Movies), she is getting at the problem of the collision between personal worlds and impersonal worlds. What we notice in The Headless Woman is that nobody seems interested in helping Vero to confront her thoughts and her feelings, her out of synch-ness with the world is her problem, and her husband, her lover, her family and even the servants all contribute to making her function. But the film is on the side of her dysfunction, of her sensitivity to the world. What the film manages to do is keep in check the slide into subjective states, so that it retains a strong critical dimension.
Shortly before the end of the film, Vero drops the dyed blonde hair she has been sporting throughout for a dark brown hairdo, and while nobody acknowledges the interior crisis the film has been paying attention to, people quickly notice the change in hairstyle. We could conclude that this is Martel’s devastating critique of a shallow culture that barely takes into account a crisis that impacts upon the soul, but readily remarks on a dye-job. However, as we’ve proposed earlier, the film is less critical than quizzical, and it may leave us musing not why the bourgeois community Vero is part of happens to be so shallow, but why it remains so much harder to notice a crisis of the soul than a change in hairstyle. If Martel’s film is of importance, finally, it lies in the nature of her questioning, not at all in sarcasm of tone or an overly subjective vision. In various ways the films we invoked earlier – Benny’s Video, Safe and Time Out – all share Martel’s interest in saying finally not how beastly the bourgeoisie is, but how dysfunctional are its values and minimal are its opportunities for a broader sense of being. “A living thing is not contradictory.” Martel believes “It’s a set of possibilities, and all possibilities are possible.” Has that been true of the world in which Vero lives?