In retrospect, the swooning, haunted enigma of Lucrecia Martel’s The Headless Woman is revealed in the metaphoric image of a landscaper digging around in frustration along the perimeter of a garden bed, trying to make room for ornamental trees that the owner, Verónica (María Onetto) had purchased during a recent trip to the nursery. The backyard had once been the site of a water structure (perhaps a pool or fountain) that had since been buried, and the ground is no longer suitable for planting, salvageable only by creating the appearance of planted trees by placing them in large earthen pots along the periphery, to be hidden behind more ornamental shrubs. Like the hidden, seemingly trivial abandoned garden object, a concealment also subtly – but palpably – alters the surface of the landscape in The Headless Woman. Hurrying to a rendezvous with her lover (and family friend), Juan Manuel (Daniel Genoud) in another town, a distracted Verónica, reaching for her cell phone, collides with something on the road – the outline of a dog’s carcass visible on the far edge of the frame – and continues on for a few yards before stopping to compose herself and driving away. But as Verónica returns to the familiar rituals of her daily life – a busy dental practice, a never-ending landscaping project, a supportive, but equally distracted husband named Marcos (César Bordón), a sickly, coddled daughter – the fissures in her empty, privileged existence of cultivated gardens and choreographed white lies begin to surface, manifesting in her increasing apprehension that she has accidentally killed somebody on that desolate road. Martel further hones the visual economy and organic (yet meticulously structured), fractal narrative of her earlier films to create an Antonioniesque portrait of ennui and bourgeois dysfunction (in one insightful sequence, the housekeeper offers to dress a game animal that had been shot by Marcos during a recent hunt, repeating the idea of killing and interceded cleaning). Moreover, Martel’s recurring themes of classism and privilege are elegantly brought to the forefront in The Headless Woman, reflected explicitly in the disposability of a potter’s missing errand boy (who becomes immediately replaceable when his younger brother takes over his job), and implicitly in an impoverished town’s profound disconnection from the nearby, more affluent city (in one episode, Verónica ventures into the missing boy’s neighborhood and the residents are unable to provide directions on how to get out of the slums, illustrating the social – and institutional – reality of their inability to escape their poverty and marginalization).
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