Thursday, August 20, 2009

The Headless Woman

(Lucrecia Martel, Argentina, 2009)

It might be a bizarre echo of Marlene Dietrich's final words in Touch of Evil, but this film is some kind of masterpiece. Whence the qualification of "some kind?" Because (I think) it's a film that demands to be processed slowly, savored upon reflection and re-viewed. It's of that lovely variety of cinema that is at once both mystifying and stimulating - the primary effect is a weird and yet wholly satisfying kind of puzzlement. As they exist now, my impressions of the film are largely visceral, and it will take some time and head-scratching to get a sense of just how many layers exist in this delicacy.

But make no mistake, THW is absolutely a delicacy. Martel is, I'm certain, a true master of the medium, and I say this as someone who has yet to see her two previous features. As far as I'm concerned, if she can make this good of a film on her third time out, she's got the goods.

THW is, first and foremost, a very elegant film - every decision, from the framing to the cut (and especially the magnificently detailed and frequently unnerving sound design) is made with care and precision. Martel never advertises her high attention to detail - she is a filmmaker who is admirably confident in her abilities and interests. In the end, the film manages to cover a remarkable amount of aesthetic ground; it is allusive, realistic, evocative of a specific place and mood, yet gently surreal. All (and I do mean all) of the performances are virtuosic in their lack of affect, their honesty, and while the characters are, traditionally speaking, quite thin, the range of human emotion and nuance on display is often breathtaking.

When we reflect on the "meaning" of what we're watching in THW, what draws the most attention is the political subtext. There's a few overlapping layers of class oppression being examined; the bourgeois oppress the working class, who are of indigenous descent and visibly poor, and the (more subtle) subjugation of women. This deserves copious unpacking by itself, but I would pause here and contend that this is not the beating heart of this truly vital work of cinema.

Rather, the film is an existential/spiritual hall of mirrors, too focused on human idiosyncrasy and the burden of consiousness to be reduced to some kind of artful, stylized polemic (as some have suggested.) It's true - Martel is occasionally deterministic, and there are times when the strands of thematic import show a bit too much; the film wants to, and could be, a magnificent treatise on the human condition but settles for something smaller in scope.

And yet this is no less a victory - a deeply human film that flaunts its politics and beguiles the senses at the same time, leading one to ponder and delight and puzzle over its sensual strangeness even while recognizing its political dimension. But not once is THW shrill or preachy or puffed-up. It's a film that invites you inside, and if you, discovers a wondrous and maddening world quite like our own, yet wholly different - a true dream world. Martel's work of art is the most seductive alternate universe this side of David Lynch.

More to come, certainly...

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