May 26, 2011 / Filmwell
Kenji Koiso has his summer vacation all planned out: he and his friend Sakuma have …
July 31, 2009
I didn’t notice a single deep-focus shot in the entire eighty-seven minutes of Lucrecia Martel’s The Headless Woman (La mujer sin cabeza), which recently screened with Martel in attendance at the Billy Wilder Theater in Los Angeles. Virtually every frame, like the one above, contains a shallow depth-of-field, with the point of focus preserved almost exclusively for Veronica (Maria Onetta), an Argentinean woman who thinks she might have accidentally killed a boy while driving home from a rendezvous with her lover. During a car trip with family members, Veronica looks out the window, across a chasm, and into a canal, where firefighters and police are trying to pry a body out of the water; Martel’s camera remains fixed on Veronica’s hair and the back of her neck as the car turns slowly along the dirt road adjacent to the waterway. Later, in the scene pictured above, Veronica ponders the significance of a newspaper report confirming the discovery of a boy’s body in that canal, while her gardener discovers a hidden pool or fountain underneath the yard. The man remains present in the frame but blends, as a fuzzy silhouette, into the background.
Martel used shallow depth-of-field, or compression, in her previous films to bring her central characters, members of Argentina’s bourgeoisie, into relief against their surroundings and the huddled bodies that crowded around them. In The Headless Woman, her use of compression is even more purposeful. It illustrates what interviewer Scott Foundas described after the screening as Veronica’s “separation from reality”, the collapse within her own mind as her imagination gets the best of her. Who, or what, did she really hit with her car? If she struck a young boy, is the body in the canal his or someone else’s? Why does she become increasingly reticent and closed off as the hours and days pass? The plane of focus remains on her because that separation is part of the subject of the film. More importantly, the visual compression mirrors Veronica’s wavering distance from other social classes, the ingrained, prevailing split between lighter-skinned, middle class citizens (like her), who can trace their ancestry back to Spain, and the darker-skinned, lower-class citizens who work for them, who live on the outskirts of the city, who hitch rides home from bourgeois employers who own cars and suburban homes. Veronica seems contained, detached from them, yet their blurred contours in the sides of the frames work very much like static interference on the radio: the continual reminder that there are others on the periphery. The boy she might have killed is a poor day laborer; Veronica’s social isolation has been compromised, and her mental anxiety escalates.
Martel has always seemed exceptionally sensitive to class differences and experiences, and I think she’s become as astute an observer of social class as Luis Bunuel, minus the persistent dark humor and surrealism. In The Headless Woman, Argentina’s class bifurcation runs far deeper and is much older than the canal that bisects the town, race is inextricably tied to class, and the cars that Veronica and her family drive, as Martel explained during the Q&A session, are outward symbols of a wave of car buying that besieged the Argentinean middle and upper classes in the 1990s. Martel certainly displays these concerns visually, but much of her innovation as a filmmaker lies equally in her use of another element. The Headless Woman begins, literally, in the dark, with white titles against a black background and the sound of crickets chirping and boys’ feet running across gravel; from there, Martel’s world becomes knowable through sound: rain falling on car windows, rumbling motorcycle engines, ringing cell phones, distant, repetitive thunder, the gears of a VCR fast-forwarding a video tape of Veronica’s wedding, and (my favorite) the sound of metal key chains clanging against one another. Those keys are, forgive the pun, key; they hang on hooks behind the front counter of the motel where Veronica conducts an illicit affair, and they ring out whenever the breeze shoots down the hallway. Like the garden that conceals the pool (as Strictly Film School points out, the concealment parallels Veronica’s own), the motel itself is a disguise meant to hide an affair that should not exist, to help Veronica extricate herself from the realities that she is so hesitant to confront.
Much of the experience of the social world in Martel’s films lies in the soundtrack, from the pinging showers that cool off the bourgeois family in La Cienaga during a characteristically hot South American summer and the Theremin’s magical notes that ring in Amalia’s religious interpretation of illicit sexuality in The Holy Girl, to the car engines that run those symbols of social status in The Headless Woman. Unlike the bloated and often excessively careful sound design of mainstream cinema, Martel’s audio is ambient, and, combined with her visual choices, creates a refreshingly immersive, yet unencumbered, cinema.