Lucrecia Martel’s LA MUJER SIN CABEZA (THE HEADLESS WOMAN) 2008, is one of my favorite films by her. An extremely talented and innovative filmmaker, Martel consistently moves the art form forward. On the surface the story appears to be fairly simple and straight forward; a woman hits something while driving on a deserted road. Her head appears to smack into the steering wheel or the windshield, and whiplashes back. Not sure if she has hit a person, an animal or anything at all she drives off dazed and confused becoming increasingly disturbed by what she may or may not have done and her possible injury.
However, Martel builds a cinematic world that is any thing but, fairly simple and straight forward.
Martel defines and intensifies the character through the placement of Vero within the frame. She uses visual and auditory elements to their fullest extent to get you inside the mind of the protagonist, Vero. We’re just a little behind, as is Vero. Confused, not completely sure what has or hasn’t happened.
The narrative is unfocused and confusing. Vero appears to be detached almost robotic, reactionless to the events that may have occurred. It’s organic and unsettling for us.
Vero's disorientation becomes most disturbing through Martel’s visualization, which begins with her pushed to the left or right of the frame causing an off balance feel to her world and our interpretation of it.
There are no establishing shots. No master shot, shot, reverse shot, a pattern of classical cinema. As Thomas Ethan Harris stated, “One of the dominant elements of classical, editorial construction that grounds the space the character exists in is removed.”
There is lots of empty space, which causes her world to feel vacuous and empty. This empty space is the dominant visual area. Empty Space equals Dominant Contrast. The Dominant Contrast is the area of the frame, which the viewer’s eyes are first drawn, whereby we look at the empty space before we look at Vero. This is unsettling for us as the eye will always return to the dominant contrast as it moves around the frame.
The dialogue and sound effects begin long before the scene, causing further confusion into what’s going on.
Watching this film feels as if we had some sort of head injury. And that’s a good thing.