Don’t bring a guilty conscience to a viewing of The Headless Woman. The movie so accurately recreates that particular emotional state that watching it will feel like sitting beneath an interrogator’s spotlight.
The film centers on Vero (Maria Onetto), an elegant Argentine woman whose dyed-blond hair and chic wardrobe distinguish her from everyone else onscreen (especially the indigenous servant class that moves, almost unnoticed, around her). Driving along a back road one day, Vero gets involved in a car accident that leaves her physically unharmed but deeply shaken. She wanders from the hospital and checks into a hotel for the night, trying to regain her composure before heading home. But even there, she moves about in a stupor, allowing her servants, husband, and other family members to nudge her through her daily routines. Preoccupied with their own distractions, they barely notice that something is severely wrong.
It’s fairly easy to surmise what’s wrong, but I’ll leave the movie’s “reveal” unstated. The Headless Woman is less about plot than psychology, anyway. In that it bears much in common with the work of Pedro Almodovar. Like him, writer-director Lucrecia Martel (La Cienaga) means to open up the interior life of a particular woman, and both use hints of the otherworldly to do it (as in Volver, the specter of the dead factors in here). The Headless Woman, however, feels like Almodovar in slow motion, or muted. The further we get into Vero’s head, the fuzzier things seem to be—until we realize that Martel has been evoking a stuporous state of denial. Then, suddenly, Vero’s guilt clicks into place with an awful clarity. The movie dazes, then crushes you.
Onetto is mesmerizing in a truly difficult role; she must communicate the roiling psychology of a woman who has been stunned into implacability. Tiny details—an intake of breath, a fluttering of the eyes—do most of the work, while Martel supports her lead actor’s fine performance with evocative visual flourishes. In one scene, when Vero witnesses something that reminds her of the accident, the screen suddenly brightens to a harsh flash as Vero protectively puts on her sunglasses.
There is another nice touch in the final scene, in which Vero, her husband, and their friends gather at a party at a restaurant and Martel shoots them through a glass door, effectively warping and distorting their faces. The fact that there appear to be no representatives of the servant class here is telling. The Headless Woman explores a state of denial that is both personal and national, in that it allows upper-class Argentines to disregard those of indigenous descent as fellow human beings. The people at this party think things have been put back in their proper order. But The Headless Woman sees things differently. Vero may feel fine for now, yet someday she’ll have to look in a mirror, and it will be a warped reflection that she sees.