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New York Film Festival 2008: The Headless Woman and Tony Manero

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New York Film Festival 2008: <em>The Headless Woman</em> and <em>Tony Manero</em>

Thursday was NYFF’s day of South American cinema. The morning brought Lucrecia Martel’s The Headless Woman, the afternoon Pablo Larraín’s Tony Manero. Both are staggering in different ways. Let’s start with the harder one. I’ve never been a fan of Martel—arguably the most prominent Argentinian director this side of the millennium (exactly the kind of description that can drive people crazy, but whatever). Martel is obviously a sophisticated filmmaker, but she alienated me greatly in La Cienaga and The Holy Girl with her shaky-cam—not to be confused with the Michael Mann school of trying to catch gorgeous momentary accidents or the Assayas school of nervous energy, but far more thematically related. Cienaga’s camera is part of the humid irritability, The Holy Girl’s connected with the film’s general interest in touching and not touching bodies, things always being just this close but impossible to connect with. Martel’s cinema is fundamentally one of misdirection and missed connections; all of these things make sense, but they set my teeth on edge. This kind of camera is why it took me a good three or four movies to come around on Olivier Assayas. I’m an idiot.

It would appear, to some extent, that Martel’s been fucking with me. I doubt I’ll see a single more staggering movie, frame-by-frame, than The Headless Woman all year. The camera is nailed-down and the maximalist widescreen compositions are astonishing in every direction—range of color, geometry (both horizontal and in depth), any trait you’d care to pick up on. Description is useless: this deserves large, glossy reproductions in ArtForum or something. The function stays the same: people stare into mirrors that disorient you as to where others are coming from, glass doors get in the way, every visual is an exercise in ambiguity. And Martel doesn’t do formalist master shots: she cuts often enough that you’re disoriented from one overwhelming frame to the next.

I hated every minute of it.

Martel’s interest in misdirection isn’t simply following the Antonioni path of alienation and anomie; it’s class-based. As in her past two films, Argentina’s lower classes (darker-skinned, treated as the most casual of helpmeets and servants) are always present but never seen by the ostensible protagonists. In this case, anti-protagonist being Verónica (María Onetto), the kind of crows-feet middle-aged sexy à la Julie Christie who you sense must have been staggeringly gorgeous in her prime. In a concise opening scene, Martel offers up the last minutes of an afternoon picnic, singling out no one person more than any other: Verónica and mothers chatting, trading gossip and stories, packing the cars, calling the kids back. It’s only when Verónica began driving alone that I realized she might be special, that this wasn’t just a group portrait. What happens next is strangely inevitable: having established what Verónica’s daily adult routine might have been like every day up to now, Martel blows it up. Verónica’s phone rings, she foolishly leans over for it on a tricky curve and hits something. Martel holds the shot, a side profile from the passenger seat: the car stops and Verónica’s implacable calm changes to the quietest kind of freak-out and meltdown. She steps out, the door stays open, we focus on the empty out-of-focus space, it starts raining, Verónica gets back in and drives away. A shot out the rear window reveals a dead dog. Over and done with? Hardly.

What happens to Verónica over the first half of the film is supremely, utterly irritating: seemingly unable to do anything more than smile enigmatically and avoid questions and requests others unofficially step in to deal with, she’s trapped in her own world of guilt and paranoia. What she thinks she’s actually done (not revealed til halfway through) is, based on what we’ve seen, completely impossible, which doesn’t make her feel one bit better. Domestics pad around quietly; an obnoxious sister, Josefina (Claudia Cantero), makes occasional appearances, bullying her young daughter. (I think; everything’s quite confusing.) Things happen, yet nothing changes.

On the one hand, the film’s logic is impenetrable. An example of why I am occasionally a supremely useless viewer: I had no idea, til I was cruising the reviews, that Verónica was suffering from amnesia. I just thought she was being the usual coy festival-movie enigmatic bitch. So that’s my fault, though I’m not sure how much of a difference it makes. As for the rest: continuous with Martel’s last two films, water is everywhere, flooding the canals, in endless hair-washing, raining down upon the unseen who don’t have the luxury of ignoring it. Fair enough; it goes with the dread. But what’s with the obsession with hair-washing? That’s actually the least puzzling question I could raise, yet the one that most obscurely irritated me. The big question, increasingly, becomes what the hell Martel is playing at. Yet there are basic crudenesses here that make me question whether her ideas are up to her newly dazzling style: no sooner does she run the dog over than her husband brings home a dead deer—only the first of many over-the-top coincidences and echoes that seem designed to pummel Verónica at every turn. There’s also my past experience of Martel’s work, where I knew exactly what she was doing and still didn’t like it. And yet, part of me wonders if I’m not writing her off, the way Ray Carney describes how he hated Cassavetes’ work the first time round for not cuing him how to react, then gradually immersing himself and discovering his own inadequacy as a viewer. But that doubt’s a very small part of my reaction. See The Headless Woman when Focus Features puts it out (with a bizarre, chunky new font for subtitles to boot), but don’t expect an easy ride by any means.

Tony Manero is, barring something exceptional, the strangest, scuzziest film of the year. The only point of comparison I can find that remotely fits is Frownland, just because that’s another film heavy on film-grain and a protagonist who offers absolutely no point of entrance. The other thing the two films have in common is a tone where the line between menace and black comedy is never clearly demarcated. One of the weird side-effects of going through the NYFF gauntlet is that the “festival movie” par excellence begins to seem kind of generic; you get used to long, blurry, seemingly non-narrative shots following people down streets, lengthy silences, all the rest of it. For the first 20 minutes, Tony Manero seems to be one of those, and I settled down into a pleasant torpor, wondering if it was going anyplace different. I needn’t have wondered.

Tony Manero is actually one Raul Peralto Parades O (Alfredo Castro), a 52-year-old loser in Pinochet’s Chile. Raul’s only goal in life is to be Tony, John Travolta’s character in Saturday Night Fever. Never mind that Raul is hilariously missing the point of the movie—that Travolta’s character is a working-class stiff with little to idolize, that disco is an escape rather than a goal to strive toward. Vis-a-vis the all-brown, all-bad landscape he moves through, it’s surely vastly preferable. Raul’s so single-minded that when people impede his way—a junkyard dealer trying to scalp him for glass tiles for an ersatz-dance-floor, say—he kills them. He’s mirroring Travolta’s character to an extreme degree.

The point of Tony Manero is a relatively facile one, even though it’s the most subtle political indictment in years; it gradually becomes clear that, however sociopathic he may be, Raul’s an angel compared to the random round-ups and executions of Pinochet’s army. But director Pablo Sorrain sets this up so subtly that it’s never troublesome; it’s surely a legitimate point, just one well-worn by cliche. What’s important is the texture, which could be straight 1978. Grain prevails; everything exists in the same fucked-up analog patina as Manero’s well-worn tapes, the subtitled prints playing at the local theater, the dirt and brown of everything, the overall beigeness of the damn film. Overt jokes trade with nervous laughs and provocations so outrageous they stop being offensive and start being pure jaw-droppers. Better to say too little than too much: we’re a long way from Costa-Gavras’ Missing, and perhaps better off for it.

Incidentally, the shorts committee (whoever these mystery people are) have stepped up big-time from the normally horrendous openers. Tony Manero is preceded by the thematically apposite Love You More, a rare dose of sentimentality from the normally acerbic Patrick Marber (author of Closer et al). If the title’s ringing bells, good job fellow Buzzcocks fan; if not, better brush up before you come, because this tiny vignette of a boy and a girl getting together over the single, while pitch-perfect in its period recreation, believable teen awkwardness and horniness, and feel for old-school record-store culture (complete with a perfect B-side joke), is probably completely insufferable if you’re not a fan of the song. Directed by Sam Taylor Wood, who presumably one of these days will stop messing about with shorts and music videos and blow everyone away, this is a toss-off from people who can aim higher, and it’s delightful.

Vadim Rizov is a New York-based freelance writer. His work has appeared in The Village Voice, The Onion A.V. Club and Paste Magazine, among others.