Sunday, August 30, 2009

Losing Your Head and Being a Lady

In Lucrecia Martel's The Headless Woman, Vero (Maria Onetto) drives down a dirt road in a little car, averts her attention in that awkward backseat-turn-around-reach, and hits something. We have reason to believe it's a dog because a dead dog lies in the road, but this film's penchant for eerie counterfactuals, for abstracted closeups, and for exploiting off-screen space, makes it just as reasonable for the hit creature to be a child or a nightmare. A ghost story of perfect disorder, Martel's picture maintains the aura around this strange car crash; the rest of the film offers up a post-trauma haze that makes routine a stranger and identity, ephemeral. It's a credit to Martel's filmmaking that the movie swallows the viewer with such force, constantly pushing on its audience that pesky Hitchcockian question: Why am I so scared?

Like all movies, The Headless Woman lies open to multiple readings, but its stylistic and narrative abstraction seem to especially invite lots of viable, coherent critical paths. [And, duh, that's a totally awesome thing about the movies (and dreams and life): that gestures and words and a camera's stillness or anticipation can articulate very different ideas simultaneously and that, it follows, we can strive to open ourselves up to and be literate enough to read these varied meanings. And of course this seems to be the fun of criticism.] And so let me just say, there's a big fat political allegory working through this nightmare by which a richer, whiter Argentine forgets or doesn't choose to remember how a poorer, darker Argentine disappears, and all of this calls up Argentina's tortured political past in subtle if specific strokes. But so let's just leave that interpretive path behind for the one that nobody else (feminist sigh) seems to care about.
The thing I'm most compelled to mull over: that as much as this movie is about forgetting it's also about becoming, and, quite pointedly among its many mystifying qualities, about the alternately warm and alienating experience of becoming a Lady. And more generally it's a kind of rebirth story, of coming out into a seemingly strange world made all the more strange by people's and objects' unsettling insistence that they are not strange at all. It's the world's cosmic, everyday assumption that Vero's butting up against, that assumption that a person's going to shower with her clothes off, remember how to do her job, or see the dog that makes the barking. It's this earthly standard that guides us through our days by constantly, subtly reminding us who we are and, alternatively, makes insanity's precipice so horrifying, makes losing your mind (or your head, as Vero finds out) so severely disorienting. But the world's expectation of us is of course not only sensory or physical, but--no less powerfully--also social, and a loss of one's social grip on the world conceives a similar sort of grave confusion. We see a version of this in life and on film quite a bit, often with the pop-psychological tag "mid-life crisis" attached to it, in which grown-people somehow catch a glimpse of the life they've been living and stand shocked, appalled, and instantly alienated by the rules that've directed their paths, by the world's expectation of them, and (perhaps most dangerously) by the swaths of committed people still following the rules and fulfilling the expectation. Stories about women and mothers and wives seem a natural inheritor of this narrative and cinema/world history brings some shining examples. The phantasmic abstraction of Lucrecia Martel's piece is far less deliberate than something like The Hours or Woman Under the Influence or even the what-the-fuck-am-I-supposed-to-do expression worn by a 22yr-old mother of four on the bus yesterday, but The Headless Woman is part of this lineage nonetheless.

And so Vero drives away from killing something and it starts to pour and the haze descends and she's speechless. The world tries its mightiest to remind Vero who she is and, remarkably, almost all of the reminders are in some way gendered. The cosmic/social expectation here is that she's a woman and the reminders of that fact reveal themselves continuously and quietly, and in exceedingly everyday ways.

Groups of women absorb Vero in their seriously lady-centered stuff, all of which comes off as a routine that Vero, in some other well-adjusted state, usually helps to define. She and her girlfriends power walk around their boys' soccer field, decked out to stretchpant-visor-fannypack excess. Vero's mixed in with the pack, her arms swinging like the rest, but Onetta's stiff expression and slightly unfocused gaze betray Vero's outsider status. She's going through the motions in this women's world but she's a foreigner. Her skin and bones look like their working to keep her emotions internal, but her alienation is rendered external through the film's soundscape, a series of punctured silences that harken back to "the incident." There's a crunch and a distant bark that precedes one of the soccer boy's collapse. It sends Vero out of the walking pack of mothers and into the bathroom where she looks in the mirror and washes her face, trying to ground herself, to bring herself back to where she can go through the motions again.

Vero's mother, sister, nieces, and (to a lesser extent) the female maids watch an old family wedding video. They study the movie, recalling details from the day, how everybody looked and acted, who said what. Even granny remembers this stuff while Vero, as her distant expression forever betrays, exists outside of it. Left with the remote control, Vero rewinds and fast-forwards the footage, corrupting the vision of womanhood and the event (marriage) that historically has been paramount in defining it. In Vero's unsocialized hands, that vision becomes marred, disordered, unsteady--much like, as a matter of fact, Martel's filmic vision of womanhood.

So in these two scenes and a whole bunch more, Vero is swallowed up into these female cliques, assumed to be a social lady that enjoys and understands this social lady time like all the rest, who, by the way, seem to manage it with fast-talking, light-footed ease. And really, it's kind of beautiful. It's a warm and comforting place, these female spaces and conversations, only made chilly or disillusioning by Vero's varied hesitations and unfamiliarity. Here, the flip side of sudden, complete social alienation is the great reassurance that the good people around you will keep on loving you and treating you like yourself even when you're not. Maybe peanuts for being decapitated, but it's rather touching, this note of sisterly love amidst the unsettling confusion.

Beyond the grand assumption at work above (that she's a socialized Lady), the world around Vero turns vaguely pedantic, as if everything that surrounds her breathes some sort of feminine instruction. For one, she's presented a whole spectrum of womanhood throughout the film. In other words, there's ladies all over this picture--perpetually circling, crossing, carrying our headless woman--and Vero, distanced from her own experience as she is, is automatically positioned as witness to and benificiary of these diverse examples. A biker lady or fragile girl or nutty grandmother or law school student or put-together mom--all these models act as both specters and invitations, tacitly begging questions about Vero's identity as they dance around her. In a similarly instructional tone, the world around Vero drops odd one-liners all over the place that also push the issue. To name a few, people can't stop talking about her hair--they like it, they hate it, they run their hands through it, they apply things to it, she changes it. And then there's this awesome line that, though contextualized, still jumps off the screen: "the virgin's dirty, someone's handled her mantle..." And then there's the scene where Vero walks around a porch while the camera sits inside so that she's framed in one open window then another and another, her image and identity made multiple, made schizophrenic. The list goes on.

The men in Vero's life also seem like they exist to remind Vero--in, again, just very subtle, routine ways--of her womanhood or her impending socialization into the club. She alternately reaches for and runs away from the sexuality they summon. Her flee from her boyfriend's kisses as well as her desperate, sexual grasp for her boyfriend's cousin seem like searching gestures--Is this what I'm supposed to do? Is this who you are to me? A similar sentiment laces a teenage niece's love for Vero; the girl reaches out to Vero as an Aunt and then, navigating her own complicated teenage sexuality and femininity, as a sweetheart: Is this what you are to me?

There are so many ways for a person to get lost and Martel's piece is complex enough, smart enough that it seems to say something about them all. And yet this thing is so gentle, just pushing its focus slightly off and mixing up the world's pieces just enough to reframe Vero's routines as unnatural, peculiar. The nightmare emerges when Vero herself perceives these routines as unnatural and peculiar, and the horror descends when she realizes the whole world assumes she holds dear these same, peculiar routines. So that when the film ends with Vero pushing through a dark room full of the shadows of people she should recognize, we're left wondering who she is if not the woman the world assumes her to be and then horrified that she might be wondering the same thing.