The Headless Woman (2008)

Lucrecia Martel | 1hr 27min

Guilt and paranoia haunt every second of Vero’s waking life. From the moment she hits something with her car on a rural road in Argentina, her mental state starts to slip away. As she drives off, we see a dog lying dead, and we might be sure that is all there is to it. For her, it’s not. Her suspicion that it was in fact a person who she killed is only exacerbated by the recovery of a young boy’s body from a nearby canal, while all around her friends and family try to soothe her concerns. Soon enough, we start to doubt what we saw as well. Lucrecia Martel’s uneasy atmosphere doesn’t let up all through The Headless Woman, purposefully disorientating us from any firm understanding of Vero’s true actions, and leaving in its place a façade of bourgeoisie privilege that one can either expose and risk losing, or accept at face value.

Were this narrative to move in more conventional directions, it might have been a densely plotted mystery leading towards some grand reveal towards its conclusion. But here, no one present is properly invested in understanding the truth of Vero’s accident, and as such the answers we naturally gravitate towards seem impossible to grasp. There is something of Michael Haneke’s cold, detached style of open-ended storytelling here, especially when considering Martel’s social critique of those wealthy European citizens who wilfully ignore the presence of lower-class troubles which they are largely responsible for. It is as if two entirely different worlds live side-by-side in Vero’s everyday life, divided by economic disparity, social status, and skin colour, and invisible to each other on every level.

It isn’t very often that Martel reveals a setting in great detail, instead choosing to obstruct shots like these to keep us disorientated.

Even if it was simply a dog that Vero ran over and even if the boy did die under unrelated circumstances, there still lies a cold horror in the way her husband appears to cover her tracks. Martel is sure to deliver these narrative progressions as sly understatements, almost like passing thoughts that one must not dwell on for too long. They often go unchallenged by Vero too, who is largely unable to communicate her thoughts beyond bewildered silences and short, uncertain responses. Maria Onetto often feels barely present in this role, moving like a wispy ghost afraid to affect the world more than she already has. All it takes are some hands over her eyes and a whispered “Guess who?” to trigger an extreme panic, and in that instant she seems as if she is ready to face her own death.

Martel using her mise-en-scène to frequently cut Vero’s head and face out of the frame, as if hiding in shame and removing her mind from her immediate surroundings.

Martel rarely pulls her camera back far enough to remove us from the immediate vicinity of Onetto’s face, but when she does it is notable the number of times that she frames a shot to obscure the actress’ head from the composition, as the film’s title suggests. Elsewhere, we are held back from easy readings of facial expressions that are kept out of focus, turned at slight angles, or otherwise silhouetted against rain-glazed car windows, diminishing Vero’s presence within her surroundings. In choosing to shoot so frequently in close-ups while keeping us detached from faces, there is a tension woven into the film’s formal construction. Where the director is trying to push her camera in closer, her subject is actively hiding from its view, suffocating behind visual obstructions that keep us from fully grasping her mental state or the details of specific settings.

Keeping Vero’s face partially concealed is a strong formal choice from Martel, whether through the lighting or blocking. She catches a sly reflection in the bottom image as well, shooting Onetto like a ghost barely leaving a mark on its surroundings.

Despite the abundance of close-ups seeming distant from Haneke’s own characteristic wide shots, there is still something distinctly reminiscent of his icy style seeping through in Martel’s long, static takes, dispassionately observing the tortured subject upon whom her camera is fixed. Perhaps the most memorable is that which sits in Vero’s passenger seat when she first crashes her car, letting her shock and fear settle in real time across the scene. Just as memorable though is the final shot of the film, which very subtly tracks Vero’s movements through a crowded party. It remains unwavering in its intent, refusing to cut until she entirely disappears, absorbed back into the mass of middle class of men and women with whom she mingles.

With no resolution to her questions of guilt, there are few other options other than to live with the same blind privilege that upholds an entire class system built to preserve its own ignorance and wealth. The guilt that carries through The Headless Woman is as fleeting as the film itself, evaporating before it gets a chance to justify itself, but for the time that it does hang around in Vero’s life, it remains an exhausting, mortifying force of self-loathing.

A final shot that slowly pans around this party, following Vero as she disappears into the crowd of wealthy men and women.

The Headless Woman is not currently streaming in Australia.

24 City (2008)

Jia Zhangke | 1hr 52min

Jia Zhangke almost completely crosses the boundary from neorealism into real life with 24 City, and then stops just before he commits entirely. For all intents and purposes, this is still indeed a documentary, as he draws on authentic stories and voices from those who once worked and lived at Factory 420, an airplane engine manufacturing facility that was also essentially its own self-contained city. But sprinkled in among his real subjects are actors playing scripted parts, which have been adapted and condensed from over 130 authentic interviews. It isn’t easy to tell who or what is completely real, but this experimental blend suggests a shift away from objectivity of the past, and into an uncertain, postmodern future, where luxurious, high-rise apartments displace tight-knit working communities.

Authentic interviews mixed in with scripted, blurring boundaries of what constitutes absolute truth.

Our proclivity to assume that much of what we hear is true is challenged by Jia’s clearly staged interludes, such as one security guard wandering around the abandoned premises and finding an exam registration paper of an earlier interview subject. These scenes are no less poignant for their lack of verisimilitude, as they rather feel like extensions of the stories that have already been presented. And besides, beyond all of these individual perspectives, the truth of the main narrative – the destruction of an entire lifestyle and city – is evident simply in the changes we witness in Jia’s shooting location. 

Clouds of dust form beneath collapsing structures, labourers who might have worked at this factory had they been born a generation earlier pull it apart, and yet Jia never stops finding the poetry in this derelict architecture. After we spend time wandering around the piles of rubble, wooden planks, and crumbling walls, Jia ruptures the peace with a stone smashing through a window. Several more then follow, this act of violence from unseen perpetrators sounding like rain coming to wash this historical artefact away.

Jia doesn’t skimp on the visuals even with this foray into documentary filmmaking.

Meanwhile, in recurring shots of the factory’s entrance gradually transformation over time, Jia grounds the form of 24 City in something identifiable from the public’s perspective. Though this development will have its own major impact on the future of Chengdu, it is still just a product of a larger culture moving in the same direction. As our final interview subject, a child of workers from Factory 420, breaks down in tears about her family’s displacement, she reveals that it has only driven her to pursue one important goal – to own a bit of the apartment block that will replace the factory. 

 “The thing I want most now is to make a lot of money. Lots and lots of money. I want to buy an apartment in 24 City for my parents.” 

No matter how much China moves forward with the times, there will always be people mourning something that was lost in the past. For younger generations, it may be their parents’ prospects, or perhaps their own. For Jia, it is tied to the land itself – something tangible that his ancestors proudly built, and yet which is now razed to the ground in the name of progress.

Solid form in these recurring shots of the factory’s transformation.

24 City is available to stream on The Criterion Channel and Mubi.