Holy Girls & Headless Women Haunt TIFF Cinematheque
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Holy Girls & Headless Women Haunt TIFF Cinematheque

Photo courtesy of TIFF Cinematheque.

Among dedicated world cinema buffs, Argentina has been a locale of interest for some time. Though Pedro Costa’s Portugal and Corneliu Porumboiu’s Romania may be nipping at its heels, Argentina remains one of the most vibrant hubs of international film production, the result of work by filmmakers such as Lisandro Alonso, Daniel Burman, and others loosely associated with the so-called “New Argentine Cinema.” At the head of this master class of Argentinean auteurs is Lucrecia Martel.
Tonight, TIFF Cinematheque (formerly Cinematheque Ontario) kicks off its “Holy Girls & Headless Women: The Films of Lucrecia Martel” programme, showcasing Martel’s Salta trilogy (so named for the region of northeastern Argentina where these films are set, and where the director herself grew up). While Martel’s La Ciénaga (2001) and The Holy Girl (2004) are both required viewing for anyone interested in the filmmaker the Village Voice’s J. Hoberman has hailed as “the leading director of the Argentine renaissance,” the main event of the series is the Canadian theatrical release of Martel’s The Headless Woman (2008), booked for a limited engagement from November 27 through December 3.

While the plot of the film is fairly straightforward—a woman named Verónica (Maria Onetto) runs over a dog which may or may not be a boy (the body is obscured from the viewer and, presumably, Verónica herself) and the cabal of men in her life work to quell her mounting anxieties—its beauty reveals itself through Martel’s now fully matured style. The Headless Woman is powerfully atmospheric, wrapping Martel’s precise framing, intricate sound design and penchant for local idiosyncrasy in a realist enigma as open-ended and ambiguous as its protagonist’s alleged automobile collision.

Thematically, Martel’s agenda may seem obvious. As her heroine is coerced, cajoled, or otherwise controlled by the men in her life, it’s easy to say she’s just a pawn in their game, and that all men, by extension, are at work pulling the strings of women. But even this interpretation is exploded. The Headless Woman unfolds with a dreamlike opacity that mirrors the concussion Verónica suffers early in the film, which frustrates any attempt to read any of the characters’ moral barometers. The boundaries between fact, conspiracy, reality, and the imaginary are hopelessly muddied here. And the film is all the better for it. The Headless Woman is that rare sort of film that is hard to shake after you’ve seen it. Watching it, and thinking about it in the days that follow, it’s easy to understand why Martel has received such widespread acclaim.
And though critical hurrahs have been heaped upon The Headless Woman—on the website The Autuers, Daniel Kasman audaciously claimed that “To not get The Headless Woman is to not get the idea of motion pictures”—some have been more reserved in their praise. In 2008’s annual Cannes issue of Cinema Scope, critic Quintin lamented that Martel’s films, unlike those of Lisandro Alonso, are not very likely to radically alter our perception of cinema itself. Nonetheless, he went on to state that Martel “fits perfectly well in the company of the Dardennes, the Cantets, the Wenderses, the Salleses, or the Ceylans. She, indeed, belongs to every high-end collection of filmmakers that you can imagine.”
It’s yet another feather in TIFF’s cap that the Cinematheque programmers are continuing their efforts to bring important, interesting films like Martel’s to Toronto. Ever since ground broke on the Bell Lightbox in 2007, there has been much ado about TIFF making the film festival a 365-day affair, offering reasonably priced screenings such as this to Torontonians whose thirst for international, independent, and arthouse cinema can’t be quenched by a few shorts weeks in September.
While the physical completion of the Lightbox seems perched on some permanently regressing horizon, this sort of strong programming at the Cinematheque has in recent months made the prospect of a year-round film festival seem like less of pipe dream.