Argentinean director Lucrecia Martel named her first film La Ciénaga, translated as “The Swamp,” and though the film freights the title with a metaphor of bourgeois decay, don’t look past the literal meaning, either. Few filmmakers have Martel’s gift for natural ambience: The sound alone in La Ciénaga evokes a sticky, oppressive bog in three dimensions, enough to make viewers reach for a can of insect repellent. Now on her third feature—the second, The Holy Girl, brought life to the stifling interiors of a second-rate hotel—Martel continues to refine the tactile marvels of La Ciénaga and allow the atmosphere to draw viewers into ambiguous and sometimes disorienting places.
To that end, the audacious first half of Martel’s The Headless Woman locks into the blinkered perspective of a woman in the seconds, hours, and days following a car accident, and doesn’t offer a moment’s clarity. In a remarkably nuanced, ever-evolving performance, María Onetto stars as an affluent, perfectly coiffed dentist whose life takes a dramatic turn after she hits something with her Mercedes on a country road near a canal. Out of confusion, denial, shock, or some combination of the three, Onetto chooses to drive on without looking back, and she spends the next several days in a state of extreme detachment, if not outright dementia. When asked about the dent in her car, she claims she hit a dog—and worries increasingly that it might have been someone, not something—but mostly, she wanders zombie-like through her affairs with a look of placid, half-smiling obliviousness.
Though the cobwebs in Onetto’s mind eventually clear out just as details of the accident come into sharper focus, The Headless Woman takes enormous risks by keeping well within the fog in the early going. The prevailing joke of Martel’s class commentary is that Onetto is rendered incapable of doing anything for herself, yet nobody picks up on it because underlings cover her at every juncture. That may sound like heavy-handed social satire, but The Headless Woman is anything but; Martel staunchly resists such facile point-scoring, and adds real depth and mystery to a heroine who might otherwise have been monstrous. Mostly, she again succeeds in the accumulated effects of her dense soundtrack and artful compositions; where other filmmakers might see themselves as storytellers, she evokes this woman’s narrow perspective in every minute detail.