From Mary Wollstonecraft to Jane Austen, the idea of ennui as an innate part of the female psyche has always propelled political and artistic statements. Austen specifically targeted the roots of boredom through the lens of class, giving women an excuse rather than an explanation. Women, class, ennui, and the ties that bind all three are hardly new subjects; rather, they’ve become tired themes, with every budding feminist calling Kate Chopin's The Awakening her favorite book. Still, despite the redundancy, certain filmmakers have produced great dramatic interpretations of the female existential crisis. David Lynch’s Inland Empire, Rebecca Miller’s brilliant Personal Velocity, and even Roman Polanski’s Rosemary’s Baby and Repulsion, are all examples of stale stories turned into subversive nightmares.
But Lucrecia Martel’s The Headless Woman falls short of any Lynchian genius. Martel’s woman in crisis is more a sufferer of apathy than ennui, making her plight not nightmarish so much as tedious. Vero (elegantly played by María Onetto) is an affluent Argentine dentist who happens to run over something while driving home one day. Believing the victim to be a child and suffering from a concussion, Vero wanders around in fearful shock as her husband silently gets rid of any clues that might point to his wife as a suspect. Her detachment is evident in her complete lack of emotion and general amnesia — she forgets her two daughters and her husband — and we watch as she attempts to reintegrate into the pampered world of housekeepers, nightly massages, and deluxe shampoos.
Martel emphasizes the disconnect between a bourgeois lifestyle and Vero’s sleepwalking to focus on Argentina’s class struggle and the subtle racism that separates lighter and darker skinned Argentines. In one of the film’s more affecting scenes, Vero breaks down sobbing — her one and only moment of emotional response — and the male housekeeper washes her neck with a cool rag to calm her down. He doesn’t ask any questions, nor does Vero say anything. It is a moment of quiet understanding and what seems like sympathy. The problem is, it’s the only scene attempting to explore Vero’s complexity as a woman trapped in a hierarchal existence. Her amnesia is supposed to allow her a sense of equilibrium, or at least a clean slate in interacting with citizens of a lower class. But even in a daze of fog and confusion, Vero still acts superior towards others; her stature is poised, her mannerisms delicate, her nose turned upwards. It is difficult to see through Vero’s air of refinement when her amnesia turns into stock ignorance.
The Headless Woman’s greatest achievement is also its greatest flaw: Martel’s decision to use camera angles rather than characterization to highlight the intricacies of class and apathy. Immediately after the hit-and-run accident, Vero steps out of her car and stands slightly out of the camera frame, her head literally cut off in the shot. Rain pelts the windshield and we watch Vero, our focus completely guided by Martel’s direction. We experience Vero’s detachment, visually. Later, Vero stands in the center of the kitchen as servants gather around her, the camera following them as they prepare food, make phone calls, and perform general household duties. The camera never ignores Vero, but she is often set apart from the lower class, watching them from the sides with a curious, yet indifferent, eye. Martel’s direction is more developed and complex than Vero’s crisis of conscience, which makes the film visually stunning but thematically boring. A director can’t replace ennui with apathy and expect her audience not to notice the difference. But hey, at least she doesn't force us to spend two hours starting at Austen-era corsets, either.