María Onetto in ‘The Headless Woman’
María Onetto in ‘The Headless Woman’

Driving home from a children’s birthday party, middle-aged, middle-class Vero (María Onetto) glances down at her phone. In that brief moment, she hits something – or someone – in the road, slamming her head into the roof of her car and leaving her dazed, concussed, and bleeding from a nasty inch-long gash.

Whether her victim was a person or an animal remains secondary throughout the enigmatic La mujer sin cabeza (The Headless Woman), screening at Pacific Film Archive at 7:00 p.m. on Thursday, May 10 as part of the series ‘The Anxiety of Identity: The Films of Lucrecia Martel.” The victim is seen only in gauzy long-shot, and director Martel is much more interested in examining the internal (if largely unreadable) life of Vero as she responds to, and recovers from, the shock of her accident.

Unsure of what has just happened – of whether or not she’s hit something, or someone – Vero sits on the side of the road to gather her thoughts. Her reverie is interrupted by a sudden, torrential rainstorm, and the mood is set: the film’s narrative arc has been firmly established within its first five minutes, and the subsequent eighty-five will consist largely of enigma, uncertainty, and vague, immeasurable dread.

Wearing her dyed blonde hair in a bushy, Medusa-like tangle (it “looks gorgeous,” notes a friend, adding that “the color is very flattering”), Vero decides to cover her tracks by abandoning her car and making a brief anonymous stop at a hospital for x-rays before returning home. (Later in the film, Vero will dye her locks jet black – whether on a whim or as an expression of guilt or remorse will also remain a mystery.)

Shot in the director’s native Argentina and originally released in 2008, The Headless Woman will disappoint anyone anticipating a straightforward storyline. Instead of a cut and dried, guilt or innocence analysis of Vero, Martel (who also penned the screenplay) prefers to explore her guilt, confusion, complicity, and anxiety.

We perhaps imagine Argentina as a place where colorfully dressed gauchos corral vast herds of beef cattle on limitless pampas. In stark contrast, The Headless Woman depicts the South American republic as a parched and dusty land interrupted by brown scrub and bone-dry drainage ditches, a place where rain intrudes only on rare occasion. Things here seem brittle and lifeless – including Vero, who stumbles through the film barely cognizant of her surroundings and uncertain about what she’s going to do next.

I regret to inform you that, like Michaelangelo Antonioni’s Blow-Up or Louis Malle’s Black Moon, The Headless Woman is a film best appreciated after multiple viewings – and this will be the last time PFA will be showing it for the foreseeable future. My advice is that you spend the evening of May 10 at the PFA and complement your big screen experience with a second online viewing (the film is available on several platforms, including the one provided by an Evil Empire of Retail that I refuse to name).

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Freelancer John Seal is Berkeleyside’s film critic. A movie connoisseur with a penchant for natty hats who lives in Oakland, John writes a weekly film recommendation column at Box...