The Headless Woman

“The camera doesn’t lie,” goes the expression. If that statement ever had any kind of validity, it certainly doesn’t anymore, not in an age when individual pixels are easily manipulated. We all pretty much understand that now. What’s less widely recognized is that the camera doesn’t even have to lie, because the human brain will take the initiative in that department. Studies demonstrating the myriad ways in which people see precisely what they expect to see, or fail to see anything they don’t expect to see, have kept cognitive scientists hopping for decades; the more you read on the subject, the more you realize that we’re all more or less inventing our own reality on an instant-to-instant basis, with only scant regard to anything objective. “It’s just an interpretation—it’s not a record,” insisted Memento’s Leonard Shelby, in talking about memory, but he didn’t go nearly far enough. Everything we see amounts to an interpretation, and frequently a poor one.

You might think that professional critics, who are paid to look at movies more closely than the average viewer, would be relatively immune to this syndrome, but you’d be dead wrong. Take a look, for example, at the strikingly composed opening scene of The Headless Woman, written and directed by Argentina’s masterful Lucrecia Martel. This isn’t actually the beginning of the movie—I’ve deliberately omitted the first three minutes or so, for a reason I’ll explain later. But what you’ll see below is the scene that kicks off the movie’s plot, to the (arguably small) extent that The Headless Woman actually has a discernible plot. Everything that happens for the rest of the picture is set in motion by this single jarring event, and what we understand about the protagonist’s subsequent behavior will largely depend on our comprehension of these first few minutes. Which are really quite straightforward. And yet everyone gets them wrong.

I’d really love to conduct a proper experiment (as opposed to this half-assed experiment) in which viewers are asked to describe what happens in this clip, with half the group seeing exactly what you just saw, and the other half also seeing the three minutes preceding it. But since The Headless Woman grossed only about $100,000 in the U.S., I think I can safely assume that most of you fall into the former category. So, what did you see? How certain you are may depend to some extent on the size of your monitor (trust me when I tell you it’s abundantly clear when projected in 35mm on a good-sized screen), but I would expect most of you to tell me that you saw a woman run over a dog. Or at least that she appeared to run over something, and that we were then shown a dog lying motionless in the middle of the road. But the key word here would be “dog.” I would not remotely expect anybody to reply that they saw a woman run over a child. Because that is clearly not a child we see lying motionless in the road. Right?

Now, here are excerpts from some reviews of The Headless Woman:

“Martel’s script here focuses largely on a femme dentist who accidentally hits a boy with her car and runs, but remains haunted by guilt.” (Variety)

“It’s a minor but effective Blow-Up about an upper-class Argentine woman (María Onetto) whose life becomes unmoored after she possibly kills a young boy while driving on a country road.” (Boston Globe)

“When she gets back in a car, we do not think about the child she killed; all we can think of is that a child could die again.” (The Auteurs Notebook)

“In the rearview mirror we see, as she also must, her victim lying in the road, but whether it is a dog or a child or both is unclear.” (Film Comment)

False. It is not unclear. It’s a goddamn dog. So why do so many critics claim that it was a child, or that it might have been a child? Because in the three minutes at the beginning of the film that I didn’t show you, we see a group of kids playing near the road, accompanied by that dog. And because María Onetto, the woman driving the car, later comes to believe that she hit a child, and tells her husband as much. And also, I submit, because people enjoy a mystery, so it’s more inherently interesting if there’s some degree of uncertainty about the identity of Onetto’s victim. If she really did “just” hit a dog (pipe down, PETA activists, that’s sad too), and only thinks she hit a child, then the film explicitly becomes a character study—a portrait of a woman whose repressed feelings of guilt about various social inequities (she’s a wealthy, fair-skinned professional surrounded at all times by a racial underclass) erupt in response to a completely unrelated accident, onto which she projects her darkest fears. Which to me is a far more interesting movie, but it does lack that enigmatic Blow-Up hook.

Now, one could argue that showing the dog doesn’t necessarily exculpate Onetto from the charge of vehicular manslaughter. I’ve read reviews that suggest the child she hit must have been knocked off the road and into that dry canal at the right of the frame, and we do later discover that a drowned child was found in a canal, albeit in a different location. But Martel has actually gone to some effort to rule out most potential ambiguities. For one thing, if she truly wanted us to be as uncertain as Onetto becomes, she could simply have opted to show us nothing at all, keeping the camera trained on the driver’s seat throughout. More than that, though, her precise use of film grammar unmistakably suggests objectivity. The Film Comment quotation above (written by Amy Taubin, who notes in the piece that she looked at the film “on DVD in my own time, rolling backward and forward over certain crucial scenes”) asserts that we see Onetto’s victim through the car’s rear-view mirror. But we don’t. It isn’t a mirror shot. Neither, significantly, is it a point-of-view shot—Martel is careful not to show us what’s behind the car until after Onetto has stopped making even the most tentative backward glances and started driving on. It seems clear to me that Martel intends for us to understand that Onetto hit the dog, and for that knowledge to inform our perception of what follows.

Even people who recognize this, however, seem determined to invent some sort of visual ambiguity where none actually exists. Stephen Holden, reviewing the film in The New York Times, accurately notes that “a rearview shot of the road reveals the carcass of a dog,” but his previous sentence also claims that “we observe mysterious handprints on the window next to the driver’s seat.” “It may be that she has run over a dog,” agrees the Village Voice’s J. Hoberman, “although the two ghostly palm prints left on her driver’s side window suggest something else.” Suggest what, exactly? Could Mr. Holden, or Mr. Hoberman, or indeed anybody at all please describe to me, in detail, how a child being run over by a car would manage to smack his palms flat against the driver’s-side window? A window, incidentally, that a) is in full view when Onetto runs over whatever it is she runs over, and b) already has the palm prints on it before the accident. Hardly surprising, really, since we actually see them being applied by the little kid in the fuzzy sweater who’s mucking around in her car when we first meet her. I feel certain they’re not there by accident—it’s an evocative touch, a clue as to Onetto’s mental state at that moment—but they’re in no way “mysterious,” and I couldn’t help laughing when Taubin rhetorically asks whether they’re “the signs of a desperate attempt by the victim to pull himself from under the car.” (No, the kids seen earlier in the film did not have 12-foot arms.)

What saddens me about all this misguided interpretative huffing and puffing is the way it overshadows elements of the scene that genuinely are mysterious and ambiguous. I’m less curious about whether Onetto hit a dog or a child than about why she goes to the trouble of retrieving and replacing her sunglasses, which had been knocked from her face, only to almost immediately remove them again. (The objective shot of the dog on the road is placed between those two actions, which strikes me as a deliberate choice, though I’m not sure whether it involves willful blindness or identity.) And the sequence’s final shot, when Onetto exits the car and Martel pans right just a little bit, providing a bisected view of Onetto’s blurry form pacing back and forth as fat raindrops suddenly begin pelting the windshield, ranks among the most exquisitely haunting representations of an abrupt mental breakdown I’ve ever seen. But people wanted a by-God Blow-Up mystery, I guess, and they were more than willing to invent one.