Two from Argentina: “The Secret in their Eyes” and “The Headless Woman”
Last week we saw two films, both from Argentina. One, “The Secret in Their Eyes,” (“El Secreto de sus Ojos,” director Juan Campanella) received the Oscar for the best foreign film of 2009. A sort of high-class combination of “Law and Order,” “Cold Case” and a long-thwarted romance, it revisits via flashbacks the 1974 investigation of the rape and murder of a beautiful young woman. Criminal-court investigator Benjamin Espósito (Ricardo Darín) originally solves the case by means of a group photograph showing the suspect gazing at the victim with an obsessive look – the secret in his eyes. The murderer is eventually caught and convicted, but is soon released; he is too valuable to the rising right-wing military forces in the government as an informant and assassin to be confined. Twenty-five years later Espósito, now retired, continues to be obsessed with the case, and decides to write a novel about it; the grief and steadfast love of the murder victim’s young husband, a bank employee named Morales (Pablo Rago), impressed him deeply at the time and have become a kind of touchstone for him: he’s never seen such love before or since. It is an obsession that fuels his own.
For intertwined with the crime story is a second love story. Espósito’s preoccupation with this particular case may serve as a kind of symbolic substitute for love he wishes he could claim for himself: as the flashbacks to the original investigation hauntingly reveal, the court investigator and his elegant young woman supervisor also have a secret in their eyes, which they are repeatedly on the verge of revealing to each other. But someone or something always intervenes to prevent them confessing their love, and Espòsito is also intimidated by the superior education and social status of his beautiful boss, Irene Menéndez Hastings (Soledad Villamil), a judge’s assistant. Finally, however, after 25 years, a failed marriage and a few more plot twists the faint-hearted Espósito encounters the grieving widower once again and learns a new lesson from him: seize the moment; don’t wallow in the past. Liberated and with fresh courage, he returns to his love, now a judge, and closes the door behind him to have that long overdue conversation.
“The Secret in their Eyes” is well-made and well-acted, and offers humorous glimpses into an often incompetent and corrupt justice system, as well as being a gripping thriller and sensitive love story. But although the interwoven narratives of the crime drama and the love plot keep us in suspense till the end of the film, contrived plot elements and inadequate psychological development are weaknesses which may not have been as problematic in the novel on which it is based (by Eduardo Sacheri, who also collaborated with Campanella on the screenplay). I missed the political, sociological and psychological depth of a “Missing“ or “The Official Story,” for example – or of “The Headless Woman.”
Directed by Lucrecia Martel and co-produced by Pedro Almodóvar and others, “The Headless Woman” (“La Mujer sin Cabeza,” 2008) also has to do with an unsolved mystery and unarticulated emotions. Totally gripping from its opening scenes, this film, whose title might better have been translated “The Woman Who Lost Her Head,” masterfully illustrates the power of the medium to create emotional, social and psychological meaning visually through uncommented, minutely observed detail. Subtle motifs recur seemingly at random, gradually building to a web of symbolic significances that remain intentionally unstated. Dialogue appears equally random and naturalistic, recalling unscripted fragments typical of cinema verité. It is up to the viewer to try to piece everything together and “solve” the mysteries at the center of the film.
On the surface level these include the questions: what/whom does Véro (Maria Onetto), an upper-class married woman living in northern Argentina, strike with her automobile while driving home from an afternoon at the pool with her friends and family – a dog? A child? And how is she affected by the accident herself – does she suffer shock, a concussion, memory loss, perhaps derangement, or is it rather a jolt to her conscience and a catalyst releasing repressed guilt, anxiety and despair?
These possibilities bring us to the puzzle of the deeper meanings of the film. Some reviews have stressed the unresolved mystery and pervasive ambiguity of reality itself as the main statement of the film. Related to this reading are interpretations emphasizing the psychological dimension of Véro’s apparent gradual breakdown. At points we wonder whether she is delusional, perhaps having imagined the whole thing; another possibility is that she is the victim of a form of manipulative “gaslighting” by the men in her family, who may virtually drive her insane by patronizing her and undermining her grip on reality. A fourth strand claims that the film’s main objective is to present issues of class guilt in contemporary Argentina: almost every scene confronts us with the contrast between serving, peasant or working-class Indios and the privileged lighter-skinned upper bourgeoisie of Véro and her relatives. To my mind, it is precisely the densely interwoven melding of all these aspects which makes “The Headless Woman” so compelling.
The film draws us in immediately with the opening images: a long scene showing a group of dark-haired, dark-skinned boys running, shouting and roughhousing along a road, into and out of a dry canal, climbing onto a billboard. The road is unpaved, typical of the impoverished Indio area in which they live. As cars appear and rush past, a feeling of premonitory apprehension is evoked.
Abruptly the scene cuts to a group of upper middle-class white women with their cars and children, just finishing an afternoon at a local private pool. After an exaggerated close-up of dark eyelashes being repainted, we hear the women chattering in seemingly unscripted dialogue about their appearance – how chlorine will ruin their hair, how someone should try cosmetic surgery. With these two opening scenes the theme of class differences has been subtly – without comment – but clearly introduced.
One of the women is Véronica, or Véro, as she is called (perhaps an ironic reference to the truths that will be so effectively concealed – and partially revealed – in the film). An elegant, perfectly coiffed and made-up blonde somewhere in her 40’s or 50’s, Véro wears a masklike expression of gracious pleasantness, a controlled smile that never changes, even when she is in distress. It seems intended to signify the calm reassurance expected of the bourgeoisie: all is well in my world. But as the film painfully reveals, all is not well, and the smile increasingly comes to suggest Véro’s alienation from her own psyche and the deeper reality of her life.
As she drives home along the same unpaved road her cell phone rings, and she bends down to reach for it, taking her eyes off her driving for a moment. There is a loud thump, the car stops suddenly, and she strikes her head on the dash. She continues on slowly for a short distance – dimly we see the shape of a large dog (or child?) lying on the roadside behind her – then stops and gets out of the car. Large drops of rain fall, slowly at first, like tears, on the windshield, then gather force and speed. (Later we learn that the rain would turn into a freak torrent that filled the dry canal and flooded roadways.) In the next scene Véro, still smiling, is being driven by a nameless, faceless Indio man through the pouring rain to a clinic in the nearby town. At the clinic, surrounded by friendly but poor patients and assisted by native nurses and X-ray technicians, she barely speaks, saying only “I’m fine.” Her impassive silence adds to the aura of mystery; we wonder whether she is in shock or worse.
She moves through the following scenes like a sleepwalker, still seeming to be unaware of what has happened. She takes a cab to a hotel, meets her husband’s cousin, has sex with him (we assume), and returns to her house, all without telling anyone what has happened. Back at home, she doesn’t tell her husband at first either, only that she is without her car. He’s also been out all night, and has a guilty conscience – is he, too, having an affair? He slings the carcass of a deer over his shoulders and plops it onto the kitchen counter, an unnerving image of casual, unacknowledged brutality. Véro rushes upstairs and shuts the door – does the “sacrificed” deer remind her of something or someone? Her accident? Herself? (The deer becomes part of a chain of related images that includes the body of the dog and – later – an unconscious schoolboy who lies collapsed on a playing field after having suffered some sort of dreadful impact; these recurring images set off traumatic reactions in Véro and reverberate just below the surface of our consciousness as well, ominously reinforcing the theme of violent, unacknowledged destruction.)
Meanwhile, her office calls – Véro shares a dental practice with her brother – inquiring about her whereabouts. She still seems stunned, like a deer in the headlights, and lets herself be bundled into her coat and a cab by her household staff. Throughout the film, a support-staff of competent, friendly, often compassionate Indios is ever present, dealing with the daily needs of the upper-class characters. Their anonymous, subordinate filmic roles bely the fact that their employers, their “betters,” could not function without them, a fact strikingly underlined by Véro’s passive helplessness.
Véro’s extended family might be read as a living metaphor for the hidden decay of the Argentinian ruling social class. Véro’s sexual affair with her cousin and her teasing semi-encouragement of an adolescent niece’s lesbian feelings for her reveal incestuous desires, which are not acknowledged or brought into the open. (The same niece is suffering from hepatitis, and at a family event she places a glass she has just drunk from prominently on the kitchen counter, where it is picked up and sipped from by a young boy. We assume that the disease will be passed on and continue.)
The older generation is represented by the bedridden Tia Lala, a figure both feared and ridiculed by the younger women. The cantankerous old aunt offers a grotesque exaggeration of their artificial lifestyle and values: her hair, face and nails are carefully made up for her birthday celebration, at which she watches family videos from years past and observes that eventually everyone in the family goes crazy. As Véro sits by her bedside Lala criticizes her, saying that she used to be pretty, that her voice no longer sounds as if it belongs to her. Véro maintains her calm smile and brushes off these flashes of demented insight, but in them we recognize an uncanny diagnosis of her alienated psyche. In a later scene the aging aunt is clearly declining, collapsed in her bed, her hair unstyled and disheveled. Now she is harshly criticized by the younger women for “letting herself go,” for violating that most important requirement of her class, keeping up appearances.
Meanwhile, Véro has become convinced that it was a human being that she killed on the road. The men in her life (her husband, brother and in-law cousin) all try to convince her and themselves that this is not the case. In fact, however, the body of a young Indio boy is eventually discovered blocking a canal pipe, the result of a mysterious drowning. The stench released by the work of retrieving the corpse is yet another image of corruption and decay; and for Véro’s sister-in-law and niece, driving past the site, the smell is the most salient aspect of the event, and they simply roll up the window to avoid it. Véro, riding in the back seat, is clearly more agitated by the information itself. Her mask of calm serenity begins to dissolve; the wrenching tears hovering just below the surface of her consciousness are increasingly triggered.
She begins to make tentative efforts to discover the “truth” and compensate for her presumed guilt, as when she tries to converse with the boy whose brother may have died and offers him her family’s outworn clothes. Her hapless efforts to communicate with his world fall short – he refuses to engage, but takes the entire bag of clothes, recognizing something he or his family can use or sell. Similarly, Véro’s drive on unpaved roadway into a poor, unfamiliar settlement to take a young woman worker home is another faltering gesture in the direction of rapprochement; but no contact is established, and Véro has to ask for help to find her way out of the village and back to town. Finally, she dies her artificially blond hair a startling dark black: her original color, as she says. As with many scenes, we are left to ponder the deeper significance of this act. One reviewer suggests it symbolizes her effort to forget what has happened. But it seems equally if not more likely that it is one more effort on her part to come to terms with what she has done, to get back to the roots (as it were) of her real humanity, an identity that has more to do with the dark-haired Indios than she had allowed herself to see.
Finally, Véro returns to the scenes of the night after the accident; is she still seeking to confirm to herself what happened? But at the clinic, her x-rays are not to be found, nor is there any record of her visit. Did she imagine it? Panicked, she asks her brother, who patronizingly reassures her that he has taken care of them: everything is fine. And as the family gathers for a wedding party at the same hotel where she had sought refuge (and had frantic, desperate sex with her cousin-in-law), the desk clerk tells her there is no record of her having been there the night of the flood. She stands alone in the lobby as though paralyzed. We wonder: Did she imagine the whole thing? Or did her cousin similarly arrange to remove any trace of her stay, to protect the family “honor” and the image of a safe, serene world? Is she meant to forget, to believe it never happened? Has she fully lost her grip on reality?
The movie cuts to the final scene, the wedding dinner, and we gaze into the private dining room through a glass door that is partly clouded by a vertical blurry stripe. We catch a glimpse of Véro, with her smile-mask and elegant as ever, miming in silent gestures her interactions with the other guests (the glass door also acts as a sound barrier). For a time she is clouded and distorted by the blurred stripe, then emerges from it into brief focus. The camera’s last lingering gaze through the clouded glass might be taken to suggest Véro’s continuing alienation and entrapment in the artificial world of her family and class. We are reminded of Ingmar Bergman’s “Through a Glass Darkly” (1961), a film that chronicled a woman’s descent into madness (and also featured manipulative male relatives and a hint of incest).
Like Bergman’s protagonist Karen, the Véro of the film’s beginning is already poised on the brink of a breakdown. Unlike Karen, however, she is not schizophrenic, but rather has lived in a gender- and class- determined state of denial, alienated from her own needs and feelings and blind to the conflicts of her society. Some have interpreted the shock of Véro’s automobile accident as the cause of further psychic disintegration and a presumed descent into madness. I have preferred to read it as the emotional catalyst that compels her to begin questioning her way of life and moving toward a truer, though still incomplete understanding of reality. Bergman said of his own film that it represented “conquered certainty.” We might apply his words to this film as well. For by leaving so much unresolved, “The Headless Woman” pushes us, like Véro, to doubt our certainties.