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Scene Analysis: La mujer sin cabeza (The Headless Woman)

February 26, 2013

Scene Analysis: La mujer sin cabeza

The Accident Scene

**Please note that since I wrote this, the specific video has been removed from YouTube.**

A tone-poem on the state of denial. An essay on middle-class guilt. A pitch-perfect, scientific dissection of the immediate after-effects of a shock or trauma. Even an exposé of the callous disregard for the poor, marginalised members of Argentinian society. And all of this in a three-minute, entirely wordless sequence, where it’s not even clear what has actually happened. Therein lies the genius of Lucrecia Martel. Let’s break her masterly cinematic grammar down….

You’ll note the sequence begins (0.00) from the perspective of Verónica (María Onetto) as she drives down a country road. This is no accident of cinematography. When Martel later withdraws the perspective from Verónica (0.16), this is the exact moment where Martel wants to separate us, the audience, morally from Verónica, as she makes her fateful and callous decision to take her eyes off the road and answer her mobile phone. However, if we return momentarily to the opening of the sequence, you’ll notice that Martel purposely starts the scene innocuously – Verónica is listening to a cheerily trivial pop song (“Soley Soley” by Middle of the Road), to lull the audience – and crucially Verónica – into a state of fecklessness.

Crucially, Martel films all her dramas without soundtrack, preferring to use natural sound(s) to accentuate her narratives, where Hollywood filmmakers would fall back on the comforts of a lush orchestral score to demonstrate their storytelling. This works beautifully for Martel at 0.14 when that all-too-familiar intrusive sound of the ringing mobile phone permeates the the everyday normality of a driver listening to a song on the radio. As mentioned earlier though, Verónica makes the fateful decision to go looking for her mobile phone, so Martel cleverly shifts perspective to Verónica at this point (0.16), leading to the collision with the unseen object on the road at 0.19.

The next minute is a masterclass in building tension, as our perspective – now fixed on Verónica, ‘judging’ her – observes her silently processing what has just happened. From 0.19 to 1.21, we get the essay in denial and shock that I proposed earlier. She makes feeble attempts toward looking out of her car at the potential damage she has caused, but these are limp, half-hearted gestures, she doesn’t even undo her seat-belt or get out of the car – a clear case of “out of sight, out of mind”. Symbolically, her greatest effort is to reach for her sunglasses – the poetic apex of her retreat into a form of denial, or blackened amnesia.

The next segment of the sequence showcases Martel as master storyteller. She wants to leave the actual circumstances of the crash ambiguous for a number of reasons: one, is simply to add suspense to the narrative, and two, is to aid the socio-political dimensions of her film, where it’s possible that Verónica has actually run over a poor, indigenous boy, seen running nearby just before this sequence begins. This suspense is created by cutting back at 1:32 to a body lying on the road. Is it a boy or a dog? The shot is purposely from a long perspective so we cannot see. Then, in a twist that would make an expert horror director proud, you’ll notice by about 1:49, that the imprints of a small boy’s hands (and maybe even a face?) become more and more marked on Verónica’s window. Sure, these may have been on the window at the start of the sequence, but it tantalises with the notion that Verónica may just have run over a person.

At 2.20, Verónica finally stops her car and gets out – an act she clearly should have done at the scene of the accident. Again, you’ll notice that Martel refuses to allow the camera to follow Verónica, keeping the perspective from inside the car – as we are evidently invited to disassociate from Verónica’s act of cowardice. In a further moment of pure poetic allusion, stormclouds can be heard rumbling at 2.30, then at 2.50 raindrops start falling, inviting two possible readings. One, is that this is a moment of classic pathetic fallacy – depicting Verónica’s traumatised state, but there’s also a further conspiratorial, tricksy reading whereby the rain is colluding with Verónica to wash away any potential evidence (blood?) from her car.

So, here we have three minutes of rich, beautifully crafted storytelling, where Martel says so much with so little. If you like this subtle, allusive form of filmmaking, then I’d recommend checking out not only La mujer sin cabeza, but also Martel’s La niña santa as well.

For my full review of the film, read here:




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