The Headless Woman (12A)

A psychological thriller with a political dimension impresses Ryan Gilbey.

Near the Argentinian town of Salta, a middle-aged woman named Vero (short for Verónica) is driving along a deserted road when her car hits something. Or is it someone? Vero (María Onetto) can't be sure - she was distracted by her mobile phone at the point of impact. She stops, but a glance in the rear-view mirror fails to clear up the matter. The shape slumped at the roadside could be a child or an animal. Whatever it is, its best days are behind it. Vero pauses long enough for thoughts of self-preservation to kick in. Then she releases the brake and drives off. So begins The Headless Woman, a remarkable psychological thriller with a poli­tical dimension.

After that first sequence, which ranks as a killer opening in both senses, Vero starts to lose her mind almost imperceptibly. She goes to the hospital for an X-ray but wanders off without waiting for the results. She practically sleepwalks into a casual assignation in the world's ugliest hotel. She takes a seat in the waiting room of a dental surgery, until it is pointed out politely that she is, in fact, the dentist. Those nice people smiling indulgently at her are the patients who have been awaiting her arrival.

Along with Vero's marbles, most of the touchstones of a conventional narrative are lost. The era feels hazy, for a start; the technology is bang up to date, but the crummy decor and the Rula Lenska-style feathered hairdos are straight out of the 1970s. Close family members flit in and out of scenes without being introduced and Vero, in her dazed state, seems no more familiar with them than we are. She has a prickly aunt who wonders aloud why everyone in the family goes crazy. "Tell me of one who has died sane!" the old woman demands, which hardly bodes well for Vero. And she has a husband, to whom she confides her secret as they wait their turn in a supermarket queue.

It's fitting that the writer-director Lucrecia Martel should stage this moment of disclosure in such a bland, bright setting. Like The Shining, L'avventura or Regarde la mer, the film drags horror out of the shadows and into the light, the better to interrogate fully the human capacity for cruelty. Bárbara Álvarez's camera presents the disjointed world as Vero sees it; the background is often blurred, the framing tight, creating a narrow perspective that makes us instinctively fearful of what might lie just off-screen. With its preference for intimate close-ups, this is not a sympathetic camera. It hounds Vero, and seems to harbour a fetish for her hair, which it scrutinises as though that platinum nest holds the key to the mystery.

Before the accident, we hear Vero chatting about the effect of chlorine on her locks. Later, she confesses that she cannot remember what her natural colour is, concluding that she must be completely grey. Please don't think I'm underselling the movie when I say that its most chilling moment involves a simple switch in hair colour. Couldn't much the same be said of Vertigo? María Onetto, tall as a window cleaner's ladder, comports herself with a discomfort passed down from Kim Novak in Hitchcock's film, or from Sigourney Weaver in Death and the Maiden and Copycat. There's something both ridiculous and disturbing about seeing such robust, regal women in peril.

Except that Vero, for all her apparent frailty, is no victim. It is her initial act of moral dereliction, and the complicity of those around her
in concealing any evidence of it, which fester at the core of the picture. Martel's film is not concerned with whom or what it was that got mowed down on that balmy afternoon, but with Vero's refusal to confront her actions. (The glimpses of barely acknowledged non-Caucasian workers at the film's margins hint at an entire class from which she has wilfully turned away.) The Headless Woman functions as a specific allegory of Argentina's own history of the "disappeared", and Martel has said that the use of 1970s pop songs should stir memories of the dictatorship among Argentinian audiences. But the film comments more broadly on those daily, even hourly, betrayals that we are prone to commit in the interests of a quiet life. A low hum of menace comes off the screen, never rising in pitch, yet never entirely subsiding either. Like guilt.

Ryan Gilbey is the New Statesman's film critic. He is also the author of It Don't Worry Me (Faber), about 1970s US cinema, and a study of Groundhog Day in the "Modern Classics" series (BFI Publishing). He was named reviewer of the year in the 2007 Press Gazette awards and is Film Critic in Residence at Falmouth University.

This article first appeared in the 22 February 2010 issue of the New Statesman, IRAN