A spectre is haunting the Lucrecia Martel canon.
Stepping into the world of Martel is like finding oneself inside a vision of the world once removed – her films are like a hallucination of Argentinian society in which past wrongdoings of the powerful are brought back like ghosts. This gesture is never as unsettling as in her 2008 feature, The Headless Woman. As the title suggests, the film hinges around the image of an unhinged woman, but instead of exploiting the trope in the service of the patriarchal status quo, Martel’s “decapitation” tries to question the horror of the Argentinian state of things and the horror genre in film.
The Headless Woman’s narrative is deliberately opaque. The film opens with a group of kids playing on the road of an unnamed town in Argentina, based on Martel’s hometown of Salta. After this, we see Verónica (known as Vero), a middle class, white Argentinian woman - played marvelously by María Onetto – hit something on the road and bang her head as a result of the collision, while leaving a family gathering. The camera stays inside the car looking at Vero the entire time, a deliberate choice to force the audience to remain as oblivious as our lead to the result of the accident. Vero then abandons her car and is taken to a hospital, but in the hours and days after the incident, she is in state of shock that renders her unable to communicate with others and carrying out the most mundane actions of her usual routine. After a missing local boy’s body is found in a river, Vero finally reveals to her husband that she might have killed someone on the road, he deploys the family’s social power and connections to make the problem go away. Martel never reveals if Vero hit one of the kids or a dog, but this uncertainty is precisely what guides the story. What haunts the protagonist isn’t an actual event but, instead, an intense fear of what might have happened.
The Headless Woman is clouded in a climate of genuine uncertainty and fear of the unknown. Instead of explicitly naming the character’s psychological ailments in the narrative, Martel and cinematographer, Barbara Alvarez, craft a generalized uneasiness through other means, most notably by constructing various shots in which they figuratively decapitate Veronica by placing her head just outside the frame, while the rest of the body remains at the center of the viewer’s vision.
Martel is known for enacting this sort of cinema of sensations: a mode of filmmaking that relies heavily on affective and sensorial stimuli, while slowly carrying out unclear narratives. The Headless Woman is similarly enigmatic about its genre classification. The film consistently uses cinematic conventions that are typical of the horror genre, but never carries them out to their full extent. Horror come to us in our experiences of intensified precarity and vulnerability. In other words, horror manifests itself in those moments where the mechanisms of perception that usually help us navigate the world become compromised. In this sense, horror can be understood as a feeling of insecurity and uncertainty of being in situations where our ways of understanding the world fail us. This molotov cocktail of anxiety is what Martel exploits in The Headless Woman, without explicitly representing bloody murders or paranormal hauntings that are typical of the genre, but she performs an emotional citation of these movies.
After the car accident, a rainstorm starts pouring over the town. A known fixture of the horror genre, the rainstorm is used in classic movies like Psycho and Last House on the Left both as a narrative agent and as a way to agitate characters’ and viewers’ fears. Lucrecia Martel relies on this affective component of horror to accentuate the film’s atmosphere of unease. Famous for her soundscapes, she employs a soundtrack of ambient noises of rain and thunder that are overwhelming and frightening in their excessive volume and crispness.
But what is so particularly horrifying about the rainstorm?
In a sense, the rainstorm is emotionally potent because it points to another primal fear: the anxiety of the public sphere. It is no secret that most horror tropes – including the fear of outside spaces – are founded on the anxieties of the bourgeoisie. The rainstorm in Headless symbolizes the unpredictability of the outdoors: a precarious place where anything can happen at any given moment. This vulnerability doesn’t affect everyone equally: the public sphere has proven to be particularly dangerous and violent for women, people of color, women of color, and queer communities. In most films, it often seems as though women can safely navigate public spaces if they have superpowers like Scarlett Johansson’s martian character in Under The Skin or the vigilante vampire played by Sheila Vand in A Girl Walks Alone At Night. Although violence is most often waged against women of color, the threat of the outdoors is often appropriated in movies like The Hills Have Eyes, Deliverance, and, The Hitch-Hiker as the white, upper-middle class anxiety of having to share these spaces with the working class, people of color, and people with mental illnesses. The unpredictability and ambient insecurity of the public sphere is implicitly thematized in horror films as being a result of the proximity to people who are not part of the bourgeois class and the white race. The people that occupy these privileged identities are deemed as properly educated, and therefore predictable to the eyes of a similarly white and bourgeois assumed gaze. The outsiders, in contrast, are seen as ungovernable and unfamiliar. This is why the private home is so often the site of tranquillity and safety in horror movies. When indoor spaces are violated by outsiders, horror ensues. This anxiety is what gives the emotional potency to canonic horror moments like “the call coming from inside the house” in When A Stranger Calls or the not-so-subtly radicalized Gremlins who enter the white suburban home.
The truth is that if horror actually reflected the worries and fears of the working class, we would see more of the abuses of state power (i.e: police officers, politicians, and bosses) being the canonical monsters. These anxieties of the rich are usually psychic manifestations of the material contradictions of capitalism. If, as Marx notes, crisis is an explosive expression of the contradictions within capitalism, then psychological crises are not an exception. The problems capitalism can’t solve are re-incorporated as emotional crises in the form of terror. One of these contradictions is that the existence of any private property is provided by the labor of the working class, which, at the same time, makes the working class the biggest threat to that property. The working class provides the necessary labour to create surplus value, which in turn, creates the possibility of accumulating capital and property. But this also means that the same working class holds the key to halting this process, either by refusing to work or by taking this capital and property for themselves. The contradictions of capitalism are not accidents or anomalies; they are inherent to the system and they are essential to consumption and the reproduction of capitalism. The contradictions that create the fear of the outside lead to consumption in securitization and fortification, as seen in films like David Fincher’s Panic Room.
Horror films show their viewers that people who can afford it will try to buy their way out of horror. In The Headless Woman, Vero attempts to buy her way out of horror through subtler means: by purchasing the labor of people of color and by using her family’s social standing. In other words, the superpowers that allow Vero to walk the streets of the outside are power and privilege.
In the Headless Woman, Martel makes sure to instill an atmosphere of tension and precarity, but the film never quite erupts or climaxes in the way the conventional horror movies do, yet this seems to be intentional because the generic elusiveness of the film shows how the exclusionary mechanisms of horror often overlap with those of capitalism. Like most upper-middle class white women, Vero occupies a place in Argentinian society that affords her racial and economic power while also experiencing patriarchal oppression. Lucrecia Martel knows this is especially the case in countries with high economic inequality like Argentina. Her family’s upper-middle class standing and the social connections allow Veronica’s husband to (perhaps) erase medical and hotel records and fix her car – it’s as if that afternoon never happened. This act of effacement is not only the film’s dominant moral dilemma; it also unveils one of the many truths of horror. Although the bourgeois class fears the outside for its unpredictability, the truth is that these spaces are far from being chaotic. They follow a particular set of rules: the rules of capitalism, state power and the patriarchy. Navigating the roads, hospitals, and hotels of this small Argentinian town can be a hazardous task, but there are certain strategies that can help but it doesn’t come cheap.
Martel puts her protagonist in a position of in-between that is rare in horror: she is both the victim and the killer. She is both haunted and haunting. By overturning the horror trope of the bourgeois white woman as victim, The Headless Woman exposes the mechanisms of fear and anxiety that the genre relies on. Namely, that while characters like Vero are fearful of falling into a heightened state of precarity, it is the working classes and people of color who actually bear the material burden of what horrifies Vero. In other words, Vero is anxious that she will have to live with the uncertainty and vulnerability that her domestic workers – and the boy she might have killed – face on a daily basis. Vero might be psychologically haunted by the possibility of having killed a non-white, working class kid, but the kid’s family experiences the unquestionable horror of losing a loved one. Similarly, even while she is in the deepest stage of her mental breakdown, Vero is able to rely on the labor of domestic workers and of her subordinates at her dental office to carry out her day normally. Although they cannot cure her illness, they guide her and support her during her crisis of perception. She is able to elude the horror of precarity in part thanks to the workers who aid her in navigating an unknown world. In this way, the film shows a fundamental condition of horror and fear: what the rich and white fear is what the poor and non-white live.
But even though Vero is able to escape the legal consequences of her potential crime, when the men in her family take it upon themselves to solve the problem for her, they also take away Vero’s agency and blurred her grip to reality. Vero never finds out the truth of what happened and even her memory is muddled by the destruction of all the records from that day. Although she was able to buy her way out of the horror, when her male relatives decided to carry out their male savior fantasies, they also destined her to a lifetime of doubt. Vero’s bedridden Aunt Lala symbolizes this sort of life in which the stubborn past won’t go away, even as it drives us to madness. Everyone in Vero’s family thinks Aunt Lala is senile because she sees ghosts roaming around her house and haunting old family videos. But Vero realizes that there is she sees something no one else does. In The Headless Woman, Martel constructs a world that realistically shows the power contained in racial, economics, and gendered relations power of Argentinian society. But reality isn’t enough for Martel, there are many worlds and realities that overlap and exist simultaneously. In this sense, Martel shows a queered reality: a world where, in spite of the rigidity of its social and economic forms, there are also small emotional and supernatural openings for new ways of living and perceiving the world. Throughout the film, Martel’s camera avoids assuming the point of view of any of its characters, but it does takes on a sort of a phantasmagoric point-of-view. Placing the camera in positions that a character could easily occupy. Yet the camera never belongs to anyone inside the frame, instead, the camera seems to be in the point of view of the ghosts that haunt this family. The viewer, then, assumes the position this spectre whose task is to haunt the characters and ask them for moral accountability for their actions.
In The Headless Woman, the walls of the private sphere are not physically destroyed, they are psychologically and emotionally shattered by time and its ghosts. And, unsurprisingly, it is the feminine figures of the family who have to carry the burden of this haunting. Perhaps Martel didn’t make The Headless Woman into an easily classifiable psychological horror because she’s too savvy of the exclusionary tropes that riddle the genre. Instead she subverts them. Martel shows that one shouldn’t use the experience of horror and insecurity to build fortresses that divide the outside from the inside. Instead, one should seize the crises of consciousness to realize that there are many ways to perceive and organize this world opposite to the heritage of bourgeois culture. The spectre haunting The Headless Woman might not be communism nor capitalism, perhaps it’s simply the spectre of latent ways of dealing with our fear and horror; ones that don’t entail buying our way out of it.
Marx, Karl. “Chapter XVII. Ricardo’s Theory of Accumulation and a Critique of It. (The Very Nature of Capital Leads to Crises).” Theories of Surplus-value (volume IV of Capital). Moscow: Progress, 1963. Marxists.org. Web. 12 Oct. 2016.
about the writer
Juan Velásquez-Buriticá is a writer living in Bogotá and Barcelona. His work centres on dance, labour, and leisure in film. He spends his free time thinking about the opening scene in Beau Travail.