Dread Desert, Part II: A Conversation with Lucrecia Martel

An interview with the Argentine director of "The Headless Woman".
Daniel Kasman

J. Hoberman once said that "to not get Bresson is to not get the idea of motion pictures," and that's a fine assertion (and judgment) and all, but really it isn't risking much. The same could obviously be said about Ozu, or Godard, or Hou Hsiao-hsien or any number of other canonically enshrined directors. Risky would be choosing a marginalized director, or one whose work is widely seen but underappreciated; and while Lucrecia Martel is obviously neither—she has rapidly risen in profile since her debut feature La Cienaga (2001) and her follow-up, The Holy Girl (2004)—the baffling, mediocre critical reaction to The Headless Woman—which played in competition at Cannes this year—inspires us to identify Martel's film as the kind of movie that deserves a resurrection of Hoberman's baiting polemic. To not get The Headless Woman is to not get the idea of motion pictures.  The idea, from the Lumières through Bresson, Ozu, Godard, Hou, and on, that movies can show us something new—can make us feel anew—by showing us exactly what we already know.

The point of bafflement is that there is nothing to "get;" the film's plot is simple, and its form is clear and utterly precise. The point of contention—but we should say the point of acclaim—is the film's utter mysteriousness. The movie is a thriller, it is an alienation piece (where would art-cinema be without it?), it is a murder mystery, it is a psycho-drama, it is a class and social satire, it is a woman's melodrama—it is all these generic things, yet it is utterly mysterious. Plot solves nothing; precision of form clarifies nothing. But both do one thing, and do it spectacularly: point to the greater world. Like Jean-Luc Godard—the form of whose work from the late 1970s onward often resembles what Martel is dong here—or even like Jacques Tourneur, to point us towards the horror we talk about in the interview below, Martel closes down the film world and leaves all in shadow in order to show us just how much exists in the outside of the frame, outside of even of the camera's focus. Is it any surprise that Martel begins with sound before imagining what her film looks like? She is already starting with something that exists but cannot be seen. The Headless Woman' strict limitations suggest only everything that is left out, everything alluded to, the possibilities and the people, the horror (and even the humor) of such an ossified, closed existence, and, even greater, the terrifying possibilities of an open and completely visible world.

David Phelps and I had the chance to talk to Lucrecia Martel during the 2008 New York Film Festival, where her film played. Many thanks to Lilia Pino-Blouin for translating our conversation. Coverage of Lucrecia Martel's new film, The Headless Woman, can be be found here and here.


NOTEBOOK: Is your film a horror movie?

LUCRECIA MARTEL: Actually, it’s interesting because I was writing The Headless Woman at the same time I was also writing another script that I was working on before this project, and that was a classical horror movie, with monsters and everything. The title was “Gente”—which translates as “People”—and maybe it wasn’t classical in the strictest sense, but it definitely was a horror movie. So I was thinking about both projects at the same time, and I thought I would finish “People” before this film, but then I realized it would be a much bigger project so I decided to finish off The Headless Woman.

Now what has happened is that I was offered to film a film based on a comic strip called “El Eternauta,” which turns out to be more of a terror film than anything else. It is based on an alien invasion of the Earth. But it is true—I have the very same feeling with The Headless Woman; it’s very near a horror film.

NOTEBOOK: Perhaps more than any other film in recent memory, it is hard to separate your movie into what was written in a script and what was visualized and created aurally in the final product. Did this film exist more as a written story about this woman, or did you envision it cinematically and formally? When you come to a scene in the movie, are you envisioning what you have written down or conceptualizing an audio/visual expression first and foremost?

MARTEL: What happens to me is that before I start out to write, I already know how the film is going to sound. To me, what really matters is sound. In a way, images are what I strictly need to frame the sound.

NOTEBOOK: [Portuguese director] Pedro Costa says something similar to that, as well as of course Robert Bresson. I kept thinking of Bresson—despite obviously some differences—in his concentration on faces, and holding faces, and letting the whole world exist outside of the frame—on the outskirts of the frame sometimes—and almost swirl around the main character. There’s a stable anchor, a head or a face in the foreground, in the middle of the frame, but there are whole scenes that happen, and they are happening in the background! Could you talk about why you hold onto the back of people’s heads in a way; it’s almost like the audience is kept from the people’s thoughts…

MARTEL: What I find really fascinating about cinema is how it allows you to get very close to people but not actually know anything that’s going on inside of them. I find this very sexy, in a way—being so close but not know what’s going on.

A lot people think that shooting this style of film turns out to be cheaper, because you are just following one person around. Actually it’s not at all, because you still have to pay all kinds of actors off the camera; it’s not cheaper at all! Actors who are not at the center of attention want to be paid more, so in the end you are paying a fortune!

NOTEBOOK: Would it be alright if we talked about a specific scene that occurs mostly in the background?

MARTEL: For example, the scene where Vero [played by María Onetto] walks into the [hospital] bathroom and hides, it is an example of a scene where everything that’s going around is around her, it is not on her. Actually, in that scene, I had to film some people in the action, but the voices are other people’s voices, so I had to pay double! This is because sound is so important to me; and for the voices in that scene I needed a different texture than the ones the actual actresses had, I wanted for the overall sound I wanted to convey what I had in mind, so that’s why I had to use other people.

NOTEBOOK: How do you work with your sound designer? How hands-on are you in finding the sounds, creating the sounds, and placing the sounds in your film?

MARTEL: I’m very hands-on. I used the same mixer I used with my earlier film, La Ciénaga (2001); the sound director is the same guy for all my films, and he also records the direct sound. We work very well together, but having said that it is not like we understand each other immediately. We actually talk a lot, do a lot of tests, and experiment on a lot of things. He is very open to trying new things. We actually go out inside the city and record a huge amount of material that we can use as archival records.

Actually, it [the focus on sound] must run in the family, as one of my brothers who works in this area [in which the movie was filmed] and knows a lot about it went to see The Headless Woman, said “actually I liked the sound of the film, but when the actress is close to a window, there’s a bird and that’s not a bird from the area.” And what was amazing was that I knew that too! I was really excited to put a bird sound that was not from the actual location in the film.

NOTEBOOK: Do you find post-production more interesting then, because of your interest in sound?

MARTEL: In a way, post-production is a less happier than the shooting, because the shooting is like a party. [Shooting] is all together—for me it is like a party. In post-production, you are alone with someone; it’s not like a party! It’s work. It’s not the moment I enjoy the most; there’s a lot of decisions you have to take and you have to leave a lot of things [out of the film]. For me, it is a more bitter moment. I think that the joy of my life is writing, and the happiness of the party in the shooting—and then, the work.

NOTEBOOK: So many of the scenes in the film are so mysterious, and I wanted to talk about them specifically. There’s a mysterious gardener who is often in the background digging up Vero’s lawn. He’s a great example of one of the many people who are so often in the background of Vero’s life, giving her no privacy. Can you talk about the gardener working at the lawn? It’s such a strange element…

MARTEL: What happened to me, in my life, when I was a little girl and I was playing in the garden in my home, sometimes when you are digging you hear a sound. Always a sound. And there is a terror of what could be there under your house. This terror is a vital point for this film, because it is a feeling, that there could be something under her garden, everybody has—of digging and hearing a sound and being scared at what could be there.

NOTEBOOK: The other scene of terror is when Vero goes to the pool, and we know the veterinarian’s office is behind the pool, and we hear dogs barking. It is so strange because, as in The Holy Girl (2004), there’s this pool space that’s an echo chamber. Already we’ve seen all these dead animals throughout the film and we’ve seen all this water that may have murdered people—and now we have both the water and the sound…

MARTEL: It was important that when we got to the pool scene, that there would be animals present. When going to a pool there’s a sort of beast-like, an animalistic component. There’s this idea that the pool is very pristine and clean, but the background there could be turtles, or a vet’s office, and things aren’t as clear as they seem to be. I wanted to film a scene that was very clean—but in which everything could be contaminated in some way or another.

In this film, in all scenes, because of what happens visually or because of the sound, you are always thinking there could always be something beyond or behind.

NOTEBOOK: I kept thinking of Antonioni and Red Desert. There’s this sci-fi element in Antonioni—a fear—that people are going to disappear without a trace. And we get this in your film too, where Vero goes to the doctor’s office and they have no record of her admittance, and then at the very end she goes to the hotel [she visits at the beginning of the film] and again there is no trace—we just hear the clanking of the keys at the reception desk. I was hoping you could talk about this fear of not having a trace…of not existing…

MARTEL: This is maybe the most political part of my film. I believe that hiding, not just hiding to protect somebody—it’s not so simple—also entails the idea that you are also hiding a part of yourself. That you are actually erasing a part of yourself. You are creating black holes in your life.

NOTEBOOK: And that’s the idea of the hair as well, where Vero dyes her hair to still another color at the film’s end?

MARTEL: She’s attempting to carry out a complete metamorphosis, a transformation of herself.

NOTEBOOK: At the press conference, you said you were thinking about Vertigo and Kim Novak in that film—another movie where a woman goes missing or never existed.

MARTEL: I really like the first part of Vertigo. Even though the second part is much more sexually charged, the first part is more terrifying. What I do like is Kim Novak’s character and the idea that she can be mean in a very elegant way. I like that very much—elegant and mean.

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