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Director/Screenwriter: Lucrecia Martel
By Marilyn Ferdinand
A little over a week ago, I reviewed the feature film Hannah Arendt (2012), about the famous German-Jewish philosopher during the period when she observed the trial of Nazi war criminal Adolf Eichmann and wrote a series of articles and a book about it. Arendt coined the phrase “banality of evil” to suggest that Eichmann was an efficient bureaucrat who had literally lost the ability to think for himself, that his fiendish crimes became normalized for him to the point that there seemed to be no moral imperative surrounding his actions at all. Hannah Arendt centers around an observer of evil, and even though it includes some of the actual footage of Eichmann testifying during the trial, we, like Arendt, remain on the outside looking in.
As scary as it sounds, what would happen if we could actually experience the world as Eichmann did, from inside his head? What we would learn? Argentinian director/screenwriter Lucrecia Martel takes on just such an improbable mission with her intriguing and somewhat exasperating film The Headless Woman. The film concerns itself with a hit-and-run accident that occurs on an isolated road when the driver, Verónica (María Onetto), takes her eyes off the road for a moment to answer her cellphone. The bulk of the film actually tries to put us inside Veró’s head as she tries to process the fact that she may have killed someone.
The opening scene of three boys and a dog running along and across the road, jumping into and climbing out of an empty viaduct, and generally playing around is shot in the clear, sunny day with a sharpness that emphasizes their youthful vitality. The scene shifts to a group of women moving to their cars in a parking lot, with snatches of conversation that resemble Robert Altman’s overlapping dialogue, though in this case, we are brought into a dialogue that has been ongoing for weeks and must hunt for meaning. One woman compliments Veró on her blonde coiffure, and Veró responds that the chlorine is making it fade.
Another cut reveals Veró driving alone, listening to the radio. When her cellphone goes off, her head turns toward us and then down. The car is jostled as we hear one and then another loud bump. Veró eventually stops, visibly shaken, and sits catching her breath for several long moments. She looks in her rearview and sideview mirrors. We see what looks like a dog laying by the side of the road, but the car is distant enough to make identification difficult for us. Eventually, Veró puts the car in gear and drives off. She continues to monitor her car mirrors with worried confusion.
The next time we see her is at a hospital. She has a small bandage on her forehead, and is admitted for x-rays. A man (Daniel Genoud) comes to see her, and she embraces him to be comforted with sex. Who is he? We won’t find out for some time, but when Veró returns home, we learn that he’s not her husband Marcos (César Bordón). Much of what we learn about her comes indirectly from the people around her who are carrying on as usual—Veró herself says almost nothing for days, moving like a stunned animal through her home, her dental practice, and her social engagements. Eventually, however, she moves out of the shock of denial and shares with Marcos her fear that she killed someone on the road.
The terrible burden of moral culpability is what is on display in The Headless Woman. Martel tries to put us inside Veró’s head, conjuring a sensory experience that is both heightened and disoriented. The bright, sharp look of the opening scene gives way to a darker, more diffuse look that communicates a world gone out of focus, leeched of recognizable detail and simple joy. Martel trains her camera intently on Veró, tightly shooting her face at the edge of the frame, often with actions occurring behind her. Onetto often looks as though her thoughts are painfully fragmented, that she is “headless” in the aftermath of the accident. The withholding of information, the shards of relationships glimpsed in passing, all serve to draw us into Veró’s emotional universe.
They say that naming the problem is the first psychological step to solving it, and for Veró, sharing her secret not only relieves some of the pressure, but also allows others to intervene on her behalf. It is here that the film moves out of its almost experimental phase and progresses as a slightly more traditional narrative, or at least one that fills in a lot of the blanks. The threads of what were just images now come into focus—these are Veró’s aunt and cousins, this is the volunteer work she does at a school, here is confirmation that she has two daughters. And significantly, here are the employer, friends, and family of the boy she killed, completely unaware of who she is.
Martel is so intent that we virtually experience Veró’s trauma that despite her cuts that compress the week or so during which this narrative takes place, we seem to experience it in real time. Onetto has a huge job, on camera for nearly the entire running time, a camera peering into her face looking for Veró’s soul. She is never less than compelling to look at, but Martel has set up what I think is an impossible task. Just as Hannah Arendt tried, and actually failed, to divine the mystery of Eichmann’s soul, we cannot simply look at Veró’s face, even one that communicates emotion and trauma, and feel inside her. Indeed, we can’t do that in face-to-face interactions.
A secondary commentary arises after Veró shares her secret, that of class entitlement. Veró is from the professional class, and as her shock wears off, so does her moral quandary, a fading that becomes all the more easy as her husband “takes care of” her problem by erasing any traces of her actions. In some ways, it was comforting to see a more conventional resolution to the movie, with Veró washing that dead boy right out of her hair by going back to her natural brown color—though she hastens to add to her friend that her hair has probably gone grey under the serial dye jobs. It’s frustrating trying to feel something it’s impossible to feel unless you’ve actually had the experience of killing someone accidentally. But some of us can relate to someone taking care of our problems for us, and we can all relate to recovering from a trauma and finding ways to go on with our lives that often involve willful forgetting. Is that what Hannah Arendt meant when she said that Eichmann had lost the capacity to think? For The Headless Woman, the answer appears to be “yes.”
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Director/Screenwriter: Alejandro Chomski
2010 Chicago International Film Festival
By Marilyn Ferdinand
I really like when films creep up on me—tell me I’m going one way and then take a sharp detour to an unexpected destination. Asleep in the Sun is a charming, unnerving film whose picture-postcard, 1950s setting lulls viewers into a sweet dream of nostalgia, only to turn a character’s moderate neurosis into a nightmare for all those in her circle.
Lucio (Luis Machín) is a watchmaker who works out of the boyhood home he inherited from his parents when they died in an accident. He lives with his adored, but troubled wife Diana (Esther Goris), who is fixated on dogs and attached to Prof. Standle (Enrique Piñeyro), who runs a dog clinic. Diana visits his clinic frequently to play with the dogs, and hopes one day to get herself a bitch puppy—females make the best watchdogs, says Standle. One day, the professor comes to Lucio and observes that it is not normal for a person to be so indecisive about choosing a dog. Intuiting that Diana has mental problems, he suggests a “phrenopathic” clinic that will cure her in a matter of mere days, not years of expensive psychoanalysis. Lucio, who has endured separation from Diana before while she pursued cures at other mental hospitals, resists. Eventually, however, he agrees to let Diana try to get well at the clinic. “We must trust the professor,” Diana says.
Bad idea. Lucio is denied access to his wife, something that never happened at the other hospitals. When Diana is released after what the imperious head of the clinic, Dr. Samaniego (Carlos Belloso), says is a complete cure, she doesn’t seem the same. She suddenly likes to take walks and perform fellatio, and she doesn’t recognize her nephews or make her corn pie using her usual recipe. Lucio’s housekeeper, Cerefina (Vilma Ferrán), finds a photo of a woman among Diana’s belongings and thinks there is some connection. When Lucio confronts Dr. Samaniego about the disturbing alteration in his wife’s personality, he puts everyone in his household in danger.
As the movie unfolds, it’s not hard to guess what has happened to Diana, but the journey is so enjoyable and the dawning realization that we’re in a science-fiction horror movie is so surprising that I fell for this movie hard. Visually, it is a complete treat—the vintage cars with windshields that open, the kitschy wallpaper inside Diana and Lucio’s home so bizarre I kept trying to decide what it depicted (I settled on a golfer), the decorative prints on the walls so in keeping with the 50s aesthetic of artificial nature. I loved the cash-register-sized phone in Dr. Samaniego’s office, looking the world like a hotline to hell, and the full-length tile walls in places other than the bathroom, their turquoise glaze giving the room inhabitants a queasy look.
Chomski’s inventive opening—a rapid-moving steadicam at ground level with a slightly hazy focus depicting a dog’s point of view—had me at hello. A dreamy interlude of a dog laying on a raft and drifting on water under a warm sun intrudes at key moments; only slowly do we come to understand what this image signifies and put the pieces of the puzzle together.
Chomski attended the screening, only the second of this film anywhere in the world. He told of the genesis of the film, which arose from his friendship with Argentine writer Adolfo Bioy Casares and his admiration for his novel Asleep in the Sun. The pair talked about adapting the book for the cinema, and when Casares died, Chomski decided to push on. He retained the spirit of the book, though many plot points had to be added—for example, an explanation of what had happened to Diana was devised based on quack-science research Chomski conducted—to render the story coherent. And he decided to film it as a period piece, as originally written, instead of updating it to the present because he felt the story was too delicate to stand up to today’s information-soaked scrutiny. This was, indeed, a great choice.
The actors appearing in the film, great in their quietly comic sincerity, with faces straight out of a Coen brothers film, are well known in Argentina. Chomski said he is very curious to see whether familiarity with these actors will affect how Argentinians will receive the film, and he was gratified to see how we reacted without this baggage to mitigate our perceptions of what was on the screen.
Chomski added a very slight political agenda to the film by showing that people often are powerless to stop bad things from happening in their countries and communities. He used the examples of Americans who opposed the invasion of Iraq and Argentinians who did not want a military dictatorship who had these things foisted upon them with no recourse. Of course, history catches up with every event. I wonder how it will catch up with Lucio and Diana. I heartily recommend that festival goers check out this engaging, sly film.
Asleep in the Sun screens Thursday, October 14, 9:15 p.m., and Monday October 18, 1:30 p.m. The director will be present to take questions. All screenings take place at the AMC River East 21 Theatres, 322 E. Illinois St.
Previous CIFF coverage
Tuesday, After Christmas: A beautifully photographed story of adultery poses a potent metaphor for Romania in its new prosperity. (Romania)
On Tour: A French TV producer returns from “exile” in America with a troupe of burlesque dancers to try to get back on top in this amiable, improvisational comedy. (France)
Circus Kids: The St. Louis Arches youth circus travels to Israel to join forces with the Galilee Circus to help bridge the gap between Arabs and Jews in this optimistic documentary. (Israel/USA)
The Matchmaker: Magical coming-of-age drama in which a teenage boy learns a message of love and tolerance from a Holocaust survivor. (Israel)
Ten Winters: Love will find a way, but it takes its time in this wise, realistic story of a young man and woman whose mutual attraction and friendship take some interesting turns over 10 years. (Italy)
Certified Copy: Elliptical tale of seduction by renowned director Abbas Kiarostami in which two strangers pretend to be a married couple in crisis. (Iran/Italy/France)
The Princess of Montpensier: The French Catholic persecution of Protestants forms the backdrop for this period drama about the travails suffered by a beautiful noblewoman desired by four men. (France/Germany)
Cameraman: The Life and Work of Jack Cardiff: Legendary British cinematographer Jack Cardiff and others who knew him discuss his career, including such highlights as The Red Shoes and Black Narcissus. (UK)
Waste Land: A moving examination of the positive transformation of workers in Brazil’s largest landfill when artist Vik Muniz comes to photograph them. (Brazil/USA)
Uncle Boonmee Who Can Recall His Past Lives: This 2010 Palme d’Or winner chronicles the final days of Boonmee using magic realism and experimental techniques to explore universal myths and symbols. (Thailand)
The Last Report on Anna: A dreamy, romantic film centering on Anna Kéthly, real-life Hungarian minister in exile, and a spy’s attempt to silence her by seducing her into returning to their communist-controlled country. (Hungary)