The Headless Woman, directed by Lucrecia Martel, and The Milk of Sorrow, directed by Claudia Llosa

The Headless Woman, directed by Lucrecia Martel, and The Milk of Sorrow, directed by Claudia Llosa

Tom Jennings mulls over two fascinating South American films which reflect schisms of class and culture in women’s responses to personal crisis

Femmes Fatalistic. Film review – Tom Jennings
Argentinian writer-director Lucrecia Martel’s distinctive cinematic style deploys bold technical disjunctions to layer allusion and metaphor in depicting the lives of the relatively well-off in her northwestern home town of Salta. Originating in exasperated youthful perplexity at her own folk, an astute storytelling tactic treating grown-ups as essentially children pretending to be adult pays dividends in La ciénaga (‘The Swamp’, 2001) and The Holy Girl (2004). These films characterise in form and content the provincial bourgeoisie’s aimless anomie and compulsive decadence, contrasting hapless moral confusion and chaotically incestuous relationships with more straightforward contempt and condescension projected onto the lower classes. The Headless Woman now goes further than comprehensively exploding conservative pretensions of propertied propriety by excavating fetid depths of family dynamics – showing the ramifications radiating outwards to overdetermine domination, emphasising psychosocial processes of distraction and disavowal which both facilitate the real violence of class stratification and conceal its beneficiaries’ responsibility.
María Onetto delivers a compelling performance of tainted grace as Vero, a middle-aged dentist at the centre of an extended clan and community busily bound up with the comfortable little trials and tribulations befitting their station – tended to by a veritable army of indigenous retainers who their mistresses and masters barely register. Driving back from one of her complex diary of social engagements, Vero fears she may have knocked down a youngster in the rain. But she daren’t go back to check, thereafter sinking into almost catatonic detachment in horror at the damage she might have done – primarily, it seems, to her flatteringly noble self-image rather than another human being. Still, life goes on, and the genteel sheen of everyday activity scarcely suffers apart from her nearest and dearest patriarchs closing ranks in reassurance that the problem has gone away despite, in fact, not existing in the first place. The generalised collusive hypocrisy soothes her toward reconciliation, signalled by a superficial consumerist gesture of changing hair-colour. Lo and behold; history is rewritten.
The deftly awkward framing, focus and camera movement persistently obscure crucial details, powerfully evoking fractured mermory and perception. So flirtation with generic thriller conventions soon dissolves into pervasive, dreamlike anxiety, with visual non-sequiturs mirroring the dialogue’s banality and highlighting the dissembling of a milieux devoted to avoiding awareness. Meanwhile the ambient noise and incongruous pop soundtrack jar the seamless simulation of experience, forcing viewers to see through the eyes of Vero in most abjectly vulnerable disarray. Paradoxically, Martel’s surgical precision stems from deep love for her family, but simultaneous hatred of it as an institutional prototype of societal structure; whereas the vagaries of desire ruin individual and collective integrity and cohesion while promising liberation from the dead hand of ‘civilisation as we know it’. These dialectics resonate strongly with Argentina’s trajectory – the murderous military junta years whose horrors still cannot be faced, through to recent and continuing economic and social crises which once seemed likely to prompt revolution. Yet beyond the parochial anchoring, light is undoubtedly shed on universal concerns – not least, the perenially fashionable denial among middle-classes everywhere of the profound political implications of their identity.

In contrast to Martel’s self-critical gaze, Peruvian writer-director Claudia Llosa unapologetically privileges Andean perspectives in exploring the resilience of descendants of the Incas suffering double whammies of colonial legacy and contemporary capitalist primitive accumulation. Her portrayal of modernity’s ambivalently baleful influence somewhat ameliorates dangers of anthropological exoticisation by a dominant outsider – first in the quasi-ethnographic Madeinusa (2006) centred around an isolated Quéchua village and its carnivalesque Easter festival whose pagan-Catholic hybridity celebrates frenzied sin, with god pronounced temporarily dead. The Hollywood progression introduced via the well-worn Western trope of a stranded stranger upsetting applecarts of traditional power is reversed in The Milk of Sorrow (again starring the magnificent Magaly Solier) where, rather than escaping the seedier suffocations of inward-looking communalism, a young woman deploys matrilineal folklore – even though it physically poisons her – to survive various ravages of European urbanity.
Perpetua’s deathbed testimony recounts mass rape and spousal murder in their mountain village to her daughter Fausta (foetal at the time). This initial harrowing intimacy economically condenses the natives’ unimaginable suffering – also causing controversy in blaming Maoist Shining Path guerillas, whose rare leftist ‘indiscipline’ hardly matches the 1980s government forces’ widespread deliberate practice of such tactics. Nevertheless both parties did terrorise the ancient settlements, whose traumatised inhabitants fled rural subsistence to city slums primed for superexploitation. Now, superstitiously infected by ‘the frightened tit’ (the film’s Spanish title), Fausta plants a potato in her vagina to assuage mortal fears of sexual assault. But her mother’s ancestral home burial requires considerable courage, as well as cash. Finding maidservice in a Lima mansion, she nourishes her soul rehearsing oral history according to Quéchua custom in haunting ballads – for which her concert pianist employer Aída promises to pay handsomely. Having stolen the melodies to refresh her jaded repertoire, Fausta is summarily dismissed without recompense – who then summons the strength to collect her dues, and duly does right by Perpetua.
Hamfisted Eurocentric portentousness is clearly risked here – from the Latinate names to inspiration not from direct engagement but case studies of the effects of political violence on women, especially in their role as carriers of culture, by a Harvard academic. But mythology is only ever apposite to concrete historical instances inevitably compromised by inherent contradictions – here rescued by Llosa’s light touch on characters too fragile to bear the pompous symbolism of more lurid magic realisms. Yet the cold-heartedly capricious elite musician must surely be interpreted as the director’s dark alter-superego, justifying plunder by vilifying a rapacious imagined other. The immaculate cheerful positivity of the shanty town and Fausta’s family – tribal wedding planners, no less – then represents a classic ruse displacing privileged bad faith, with the weight of the world on the victims given an unconscionably rosy glow to mitigate the oppressor’s guilt while validating his/her objectifying sentimentality. Nonetheless the conflictual tangles of motivations infesting the identity politics in both Martel and Llosa’s work do reach the surface for scrutiny, thanks to feminist sensibilities that grapple – if never satisfactorily – with the complex interplay of diverse dimensions of domination.
Review first published in Freedom, Vol. 71, No. 10, May 2010.
For other reviews and essays by Tom Jennings, see:

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Tom Jennings
May 26 2010 10:20


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