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La Mujer Sin Cabeza (2008) follows Vero, an upper-middle-class woman whose world is turned upside down when she hits something with her car. Ignorant as to whether she simply hit a dog or a person, her routines begin to fall apart and she quietly unravels.
Her final film in the Salta Trilogy, La Mujer Sin Cabeza sets itself apart from her other films. It aims a spotlight at one character and keeps it fixed there for the entire 90 minutes. While La Ciénaga and La Niña Santa shared the perspective of an entire ensemble, Martel’s laser focus on one character’s psychological downfall creates her most introspective film of the series. It’s clear that by focusing on one woman’s guilt over a life-changing accident, we get a better understanding of an entire generation.
Set in the 1990s, La Mujer Sin Cabeza takes on the collective guilt of the bourgeois over the past crimes of Argentina. Though the horrors of the 1970s were long over, the effects were not being dealt with. President Menem’s policy of forgetting the wrongs of the past put national reconciliation above impunity at all costs. In his tenure, Menem pardoned several high officials in the military and sought to empower the upper-middle-class people who had left the 70s thoroughly unscathed through his own brand of populist neoliberal reform. Vero’s accident serves as a microcosm of this process of state violence and absolution.
Everything seems normal at first. Vero is driving home on her own after a pleasant day with friends and family when she suddenly hits something. She stops the car, composes herself, doesn’t look back, and drives off. When she stops to get out and inspect the car a while later, a storm begins and suddenly the rain washes away any evidence that something occurred. From the audience’s perspective, the shot doesn’t change. We get no establishing, frontal, or aerial shot of the accident. As with most crimes of Argentina’s past, the perpetrators are the only ones left who truly know what happened meanwhile the rest of us are left with a hunch that something sinister is going on. As always, Martel’s use of sound also serves to connect this crime to a larger miscarriage of justice. As Vero is driving, a popular song from the 1970s, “Soley Soley,” plays on the radio. Her crimes seem to transport her to the past.
The rest of the story unfolds as a kind of allegory for middle-class guilt in Argentina. It is something that Vero feels deeply but the nature and circumstances of her crime make her almost free from impunity. It leaves everyone around her puzzled, including the audience. For all our wants and desire, we will never know what she hit. Reality is elusive. As Martel has detailed, “My cinema has this political dimension. It demonstrates that one can transform the world through the combination of one’s will with the will of others. Reality is something we author, not something that exists. It is something we have constructed, and if we have constructed it one way, we could also construct it some other way.”
She tries to trick us several times. As Vero drives off, there appear to be handprints on her window, possibly from the victim. Later they appear to be paw prints. No one questions Vero about anything. On the day of the accident, she leaves her car and never explains to her friends and family where it ended up. Though they may be privately suspicious, they, too, would like to leave any crimes in the rearview mirror. When Vero does try to tell her husband, he desperately reassures her that she almost definitely hit a dog. Vero sleepwalks through her life and allows the domineering men in her life to bulldoze her away from guilt. Everyone protects her. Hospital records from her visit the day of her accident are scrubbed as well as the record of her hotel stay with her lover that day. It harkens back to the ending of Mary Harron’s classic satirical slasher film, American Psycho. Just like Patrick Bateman, she has a memory of committing a violent crime but all evidence and subsequent consequences are erased. This gray area only leaves her with two options; either she is a murderer or she is insane.
It is in this psychological drama that Martel shows that consequences still exist. I’ve talked a lot about the pervasive nature of the Dirty War crimes, but this film was not made in the 70s or in the 90s under Menem. By the 2000s, attitudes and laws were changing. In 2003, the Argentinean Congress nullified the impunity laws of 1986 and 1987 and in 2010 the Supreme Court declared Menem’s pardons unconstitutional. Vero may not face punishment in court but she certainly does at home. Before the crash, she was active in her social life. After, she becomes distant and untethered to the people around her. Worst of all, she realizes that her distance has no effect on the people around her. Her lover and her husband’s domestic routines are not interrupted by her lack of conversation. They can continue her life without her support.
Vero is as lonely a character as can exist on screen. Though the film and its politics are Martel’s style through and through, Vero seems lifted out of a Chantal Akerman film. Her listless and lonely routines of middle-class life seem fit for Jeanne Dielman and her growing distance expressed primarily through sound, or lack there of, place her squarely in News From Home. Several times, Vero seems to stand motionless as the people around her gossip, work, and stress. As any passing Akerman fan could note, the patriarchy may be able to protect Vero from harsh state consequences but they cannot shield her from the unbearable loneliness of womanhood.
The film ends with Vero attending a party with family and friends at a hotel. Unlike the first scene of the film which showed her laughing and talking with her friends, she is now completely unemotional and disconnected. As is trademark for Martel, the sound of the party music begins to cut in and out like an old car radio and the image becomes blurrier until it fades out. Someday that sound will fade out completely and Vero will be completely lost. Reality in Martel’s world is flimsy but the only thing we can trust to be true is Vero’s life is quietly and surely rotting from the inside.
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