Lucrecia Martel, a serious, bespectacled maker of socially conscious and subtly destabilizing dramas, is a shining star in the resurgent Argentine cinema. Her latest, The Headless Woman, is a mystery–not a conventional whodunit, but a challenging, loosely unwinding coil of questions. Driving home one day, a middle-aged woman (Maria Onetto) suddenly runs off the road. Did she hit something? A dog? A boy? Neither the camera nor anyone else has an answer, but the incident pulls her out of her comfortable daily routine. Entranced by it, she enters that opaque realm similar to the one inhabited by Kim Novak in Vertigo. Martel’s film becomes both a subtle class commentary and a hauntingly subjective portrait of alienation along the lines of Polanski’s Repulsion (minus the rape visions) and Coppola’s The Conversation.
Martel’s distinctive style–intimate angles, closely-cropped shots, precise soundtrack–is on full display in her third film, co-produced by Pedro Almodovar. “When I was a teenager, I recorded my family a lot, and by doing so I taught myself a lot about off-screen space, off-screen sound, the movement of people in the frame,” she wrote (in Spanish) via email. She attributes the sense of unease that runs through her films to the horror movies on which she grew up. The Shining, along with Herk Harvey’s Carnival of Souls, are some of her all-time favorites. As she recently told Reverse Shot, “I always work with some elements of horror. I love the dissolution of reality in horror films. The lack of certainty, and the lack of security. What are you seeing? What are you hearing?”
She’s also considering working in other genres. She added, also via email, “At times I want to make a period film, simply for the pleasure of recreating people we only know through letters and written things,” she said. “The scientific (or pseudoscientific) expeditions we’ve had on our continent, all those attempts to catalogue and measure, never cease to fascinate me.”
Martel, who says that “the diversity” in today’s Argentine cinema excites her more than anything else, says that she’s working on a script for a fantasy genre, though she doesn’t know it will ever actually be made into a film. Another mystery.
The Headless Woman opens August 19 at Film Forum in New York.