“Nightmares were useful for me even though the film was not at all based on those nightmares. Like many people, I have sometimes dreamt that I have killed. They are not dreams where I am in fact in the middle of killing or about to kill someone, but dreams where I have already killed and there is nothing that can undo that horror. The most anguishing thing in my dreams is that I am being protected by the people who love me to avoid anything coming out. That mechanism of oblivion, of pretending that nothing has happened, is, in its core, the most frequent horror of our society.”
Lucrecia Martel in an interview with Filmmaker Magazine1
Amy Taubin: But then, I don’t quite understand what you mean by layers. When I think of layers, I think of layers of plot and of characters.
Lucrecia Martel: What I mean by layers is a form of accumulation, which makes plot no longer necessary in its classical sense. I work with a number of elements that are tied together, and each one of them is present in each scene in different positions, different perspectives, foreground or background. For example, the accident is present in every scene in different forms: maybe there is somebody who is digging, or something that is thrown on the floor. So I’m not spelling out the accident thing, but I have elements that evoke that. This way of working, which is my form, was a lot easier to pull off when I had a large number of characters. With just one central character, it was a lot more challenging.
Are you saying that individuals refuse to engage with large-scale social problems because they feel overwhelmed?
I think that in the film I show a social mechanism, which in itself could be really beautiful and fascinating, but at the same time is really frightening. And that’s the mechanism whereby a social group as a whole tries to alleviate the suffering of one of its members. They gather together and cover up what happened in order to protect one of their own, even though it is possible that the person has committed a crime. On the one hand, that is beautiful in terms of human support, but it also contains all the roots of what’s evil about a social class: hiding facts, crimes even, and it leads to racism. It is the psychological basis of racism.
On an individual level, I think that the mechanism that you’re dealing with, in the Freudian sense, is disavowal. Veronica knows that she’s done something terrible and yet she doesn’t acknowledge, even to herself, that she knows, and gradually, the thing she won’t acknowledge becomes less and less troubling to her, until toward the end of the film, she dyes her hair, thereby becoming a different person who knows nothing about the incident in her past at all.
Yes, I think it’s like that.
Disavowal, as opposed to repression. Because in disavowal, you know, but you refuse to acknowledge that you know, to yourself.
What I believe is that an individual will not come out from a situation like that unscathed. This woman is going to carry this on her back like a corpse, like a bag of bones, forever. In Argentina, my country, I see people that still carry the weight of the really bad stuff that they did not denounce back when it happened under the dictatorship. A lot of people decided they didn’t want to see, they didn’t want to know what was happening. And now the same process is occurring, but it’s in relation to poverty. A lot of people pretend they do not see that a huge part of the country is becoming poorer and poorer and is undergoing great suffering. And what we try not to see is that the entire legal system, health system, and education system are structured by social class. Or like a caste system. For example there are diseases that, for a person of my social class, you’d be in bed for three days and get well, but in another social class, you’d be dead in 24 hours. The same mechanism that we used in the past to ignore the suffering of others is still very present today. That’s why in the film, I use music from the Seventies at the same time that people use mobile phones and drive contemporary cars. What I wanted to stress with these elements is that the same mechanism that started back then is continuing. So I use anachronisms to create that continuity.
Lucrecia Martel in an interview with Amy Taubin for Film Comment2
“In keeping with Martel’s preference for heavy-handed yet incredibly effective symbolism, Veronica’s accident can be read as an allegory for the rich-poor gap in Argentina, at its height in the 1970s when The Headless Woman is set. Bourgeois Veronica appears to try and forget that her accident ever happened and subsequently becomes plagued with horrible thoughts and an overwhelming feelings of guilt. It’s likely that Martel is making a statement on the invisible guilt of the Argentine middle classes for their ignorance and complicity in allowing the poor to quite literally die. Veronica, from shock or from a unwillingness to face up to her actions, is a perfect example of this. Instead of facing up to the responsibility of potentially killing a child, she instead tries to minimise the damage. Subtle? No, but Martel’s film is an absolute masterpiece in visual symbolism and deserves to be seen on that basis alone.”
“If historical and political allegory are suppressed, partial or even absent in Martel’s first two feature films, it is La mujer sin cabeza, which the director has described as ‘mi película más argentina’ (‘my most Argentine film’, Enríquez 2008) that appears to allude to the Argentine dictatorship of 1976–82 and to those ‘disappeared’ by that regime, and which follows the Argentine left-intellectual tendency to propose parallels between the violence and repression perpetrated by the junta and those of other historical periods. To reduce the film to any one political or historical reading would, though, be to deny the film’s allusive and multiplicitous nature, its polysemic inferences and metaphors, which, as in the previous features, open up La mujer sin cabeza to multiple interpretations. This openness is partly achieved by the care taken to avoid an obvious depiction of a particular historical period, a refusal to fix meaning or to provide obvious metaphor which led to a somewhat mixed reception on the festival circuit.”
- 1Nick Dawson, “Lucrecia Martel, The Headless Woman,” Filmmaker Magazine, 19 August 2009.
- 2Amy Taubin, “Interview: Lucrecia Martel. Shadow of a Doubt,” Film Comment, July/August 2009.
- 3Becky Kukla, “Framing the Breakdown: Visual Psychosis in Lucrecia Martel’s The Headless Woman,” Vague Visages. Wave Faces, 4 December 2017.
- 4Deborah Martin, The Cinema of Lucrecia Martel (Manchester: Manchester University Press, 2016), 80.