Lucrecia Martel

Argentine director Lucrecia Martel, 42, has only three features to her name, but she’s quickly established herself as an art-house heavyweight; few filmmakers have milked so much sociological depth from such simple symbolic details (a swamp in 2001’s La Cinaga, an act of frotteurism in 2004’s The Holy Girl). Her latest, The Headless Woman, turns the titular character—a bourgeois housewife (Mara Onetto) who may or may not have run over a child—into the woozy, dizzy embodiment of middle-class callousness. TONY traded questions with Ms. Martel over the phone and via e-mail.

How did the concept for the movie originate?
It came from a combination of things. I actually started writing the first draft before I began shooting La Cinaga, with the idea of exploring what happens to someone during a dissociative state. Someone suffers a trauma to the head, and suddenly, their entire relationship to their environment changes: People, objects, society and everything else in between are viewed differently. There was also this epidemic of car accidents in Argentina during the 1990s, most of which involved big cars—driven by middle- or upper-class citizens—running down pedestrians or bikers on dirt roads. Slowly, the two ideas started to come together.

Did the idea to shoot the film in Scope occur to you fairly early on?
From the very beginning, yes. It’s my first film shot that way, and my only regret was that I didn’t start shooting wide earlier. It’s the format I feel most comfortable with; most people use it for landscapes, but for me, the distance between the width and the height of the frame is perfectly proportionate for capturing the human body. Plus the shape of it resembles a peephole. [Laughs]

What sort of discussions did you and Mara Onetto have about the character?
My one big instruction to Mara was not to play the character as if she was either a victim of amnesia or consumed with guilt. Everything else about the performance comes from her. She’s a mysterious woman; I always thought of her as a Kim Novak type, which was partially why we gave her the Vertigo hairstyle.

And changed the character from blond to brunet halfway through the film?
Right!

How has the film industry in Argentina changed since you started out?
It’s actually become more vital and diverse. There seems to be a larger number of projects being made now, and there’s a much wider variety of films being accepted by audiences. It’s really inspiring. People are willing to take more chances now.

Including you, it seems; I’ve heard you’re working on a horror movie.
It’s more of a science-fiction story with elements of horror, but yeah: It’s an idea I’ve had for a long time now—one that predates The Headless Woman—and it will definitely be different. What can I say? I’m a big fan of monstrosities!—David Fear

The Headless Woman is now playing at Film Forum.

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