La Mujer Sin Cabeza

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La Mujer Sin Cabeza, Cannes, In Competition

Argentinian director Lucrecia Martel is nothing if not subtle. She is also a master of visual and aural technique, which is on full and splendid display in "La Mujer Sin Cabeza" (The Headless Woman), her third feature.

The problem is that, as with "La Cienaga" and "La Nina Santa," her narratives can be maddeningly slight, causing the viewer to struggle to comprehend even basic character relationships or motivations. It's difficult to invest much emotion if you have little idea who's who.

Her new film is even more minimalist than the two earlier ones that marked her -- at least on the festival circuit -- as a stylish, exciting new director to watch, and thus may interest only the boldest distributors world-wide. Ancillary sales, especially on DVD, will be better but it's hard to imagine this film getting much television play.

Veronica is a member of the upper-middle-class social set that Martel first explored and subtly skewered in "La Cienaga." One evening while driving along a highway and trying to find her ringing cell phone, she hits something or someone. After a moment's hesitation, however, she decides to proceed without investigating.

After throwing herself back into her usual social swirl, she begins to feel guilty but her friends reassure her that it must simply have been a dog that she hit. But when a child's body is later discovered blocking a water conduit near the site of the accident, the powerfully-connected males in her extended family unite, in a act of class solidarity, to make sure she's not implicated.

If Martel's narrative and character exposition are skimpy (the above plot summary was reconstructed and verified after consultation with a dozen fellow critics) her cinematic technique can be breathtaking. She knows how to evoke a barely-registered undercurrent of existential dread through repetitive, barely discernible noises or off-beat, insistent music on her soundtrack, in the manner of Russian master Sokurov. Children loudly cavort in the background of scenes in a way that puts us edge without our really understanding why.

Character interactions are often de-dramatized, making these encounters full of pregnant, unspoken meaning that we can't quite put our finger on. Maria Onetto plays Veronica in a deliberately flat manner that keeps us glued to her face, whether in close-up or medium shot, seeking to read every nuance of expression.

The brilliant framing of Martel's shots, whether slightly off-kilter or radically skewed, allows us to understand emotional states and relationships in ways that cannot be put into words. All is suggestion and nuance, and the way she handles space is complicated and, clearly, quite consciously worked out. There is also the suggestion of a moral denunciation of these well-to-do folks who use, but do not value, the bodies and lives of those below them on the social hierarchy.

Now, if only Martel would become a little more generous with story details, our pleasure would be complete.

Cast: Maria Onetto, Claudia Cantero, Ines Efron, Daniel Genoud, Cesar Bordon, Guillermo Arengo, Maria Vaner. Directors: Lucrecia Martel. Screenwriters: Lucrecia Martel. Producer: Lucrecia Martel, Veronica Cura. Director of photography: Barbara Alvarez . Production designer: Maria Eugenia Sueiro. Costume designer: Julio Suarez. Editor: Miguel Schverdfinger
Production Companies: Aquafilms, El Deseo, Slot Machine, Teodora Films, R & C Produzioni
Sales: Focus Features International
No MPAA rating, 87 minutes


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