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ReelTalk Movie Reviews
Road Kill
by Donald Levit

The Headless Woman/La mujer sin cabeza joins writer-director Lucrecia Martel’s two earlier features as New York Film Festival selections shot around her Argentine hometown of Salta. Even more than The Swamp/La ciénaga and The Holy Girl/La niña santa, it remains open at the end, and confusing.

Southern Gothicky in that so many people seem related to so many others -- seem, because it’s hard to pin down kinships -- and that there may, or may not, be incest, the film suppresses emotional relationships of family and society by overexposed fuzzing of background against cropped close-up views of its heroine (and really sole figure). White noise from half-heard conversation, pop lyrics, crunching tires, gives a disembodiment to perceptions without contextual understanding from that forty-something woman’s environment.

One critic calls her “sublimely concussed [and] sphinxlike,” but “trancelike” fits better. Going for X-rays after her car strikes something on a dusty road as a rainsquall comes on, dentist Vero/Verónica (María Onetto) is cautioned by another patient not to fall asleep and then writes the nurse’s name instead of her own on the medical form and flees. On that road near a highway bridge she, or the camera, had looked back to a dead German shepherd that moments before had scampered with three boys.


But had it been a dog? Soon she lies fully dressed on a hotel bed where she is visited by a man who seems to reappear later and whom she pulls into lovemaking before going to her office. The driver’s side headlight and fender indeed show damage on her car flooded by the downpour, but that room 818 will later be verified as having been unoccupied that weekend, although by that time one is unsure how far to accept her vision anyway.

Rain streams windows and windshields throughout, but she showers in her clothes as husband Marcos (César Bordón) returns from hunting. He talks but, as with others’ chitchat or questions, she sleepwalks, maybe smiles enigmatically, and does not really respond or answer, although everyone reacts and continues on as if she did.

There is a grown daughter not living at home, maids, a gardener, and rounds of ill-differentiated family and offspring, somewhat centered about bedridden, aptly named Tía Lala (María Vaner), losing her memory and zapping through old home movies on a television screen. Adolescent Candita (Inés Efron) clings to her oddly, and perhaps familiar in-law Dr. Juanma/Juan Manuel Villamayor (Daniel Genoud) is called in to issue reassurance that she did not run over a person. Marcos has driven her to the spot of the accident, but it is such pitch-black night that we must take his word that the headlights have lit up only a dead dog. Radiology has no record of her visit, but a minute afterwards an outsider has the plates.

A wedding is pending but is as non-essential as trips to buy large planters or exchanges with the boy who washes their two cars. An unrevealed tabloid article and a daylight drive by the intersection of dirt road and highway point to a disappeared boy, an unpleasant odor of rot and a canal drain clogged, likely by an animal carcass.

At a post-screening press conference, Martel said that, in the far northern province of short people, first-time actress Onetto is tall, further impressive because of her hair, piled and blond for most of these eighty-seven minutes but self-dyed dark at the end when the woman’s personality appears to change slightly.

Because nothing is revealed of María’s self before the distracted moment behind the wheel, it is impossible to say if her dissociation from surroundings began with the unclarified accident, or whether the woman has long been like this. Cleavage is there in her V-necked cardigan, her shoulders are often bare, and she reaches for the man in the hotel room, but the woman’s disconnect is as physical as it is mental and emotional.

In this Martel film “created in the vapor . . . of my nightmares [where] I am an assassin,” there is the quality of the dream in which one accepts that waking logical connections are absent. This works, of course, when one is asleep but is unsatisfactory on a movie screen. The interesting but unresolved premise and loosely related parts do not coalesce into an audience-friendly whole.

(Produced by Teofora Film; not rated by MPAA.)

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