It's an all-too-familiar situation: You're driving along, slightly distracted, and then a bump in the road brings that sickening feeling.
So begins "The Headless Woman," the third feature from Argentine writer-director Lucrecia Martel, opening in New York City on Wednesday and in Los Angeles on Sept. 4. A woman (played with masterful opacity by Maria Onetto) just keeps driving, and as the film unfolds it becomes increasingly unclear as to whether she hit something (a dog? A young boy?). Nevertheless, Onetto's character becomes increasingly disconnected from her upper-middle-class life, having seemingly left behind something of herself on that dusty stretch of empty road.
Martel directly challenges the audience by never giving a specific answer to the essential question of the film -- what exactly happened out there?
"I sympathize with the audience's need to clarify, the desire for more clarity from the story," the Buenos Aires-based filmmaker explained during a recent visit to Los Angeles for a retrospective of her films at UCLA, "but if I follow that path, to make it clear for them, I go off track from my own process. There are some things about the film that clarity isn't the most important part of."
Over the course of her three features, Martel's storytelling has grown increasingly diffuse and impressionistic, while her filmmaking has become more formally controlled. Her daring use of focus, often leaving portions of the frame a hazy blur to really guide the perceptions of viewers, is in itself daring enough, but in conjunction with her delicately detailed sound mix, she plunges the audience right into the jumbled world buzzing just beneath the luxurious blond hair on her main character's head.
"I wish I would have found this way of shooting earlier on," she said of the film's style. "I really like it. It's a strong sensation, as if you're spying on the characters in a fish tank. In respect to the focus and the sound, that's something I think of very early on, even when I'm writing, thinking of the layers. You can play with what people are drawn to."
All three of Martel's films have been set in Salta, the town she grew up in a few hours outside of Buenos Aires. The story of "Headless Woman" has its basis in an actual car crash that the 42-year-old Martel experienced as a little girl. She recalled feeling strange for some time afterward, unable to recall just what had happened to her. She connected that feeling to the way in which she perceived people to be isolated from one another by the increasing size and luxury of SUVs.
"As an audience member, personally, my first prerogative is not to understand," said Martel of the film's enigmatic center. "I didn't try to understand 'Mulholland Dr.,' for instance. Every film is a process, the ending isn't necessarily the conclusion of the story. It just happens to be the last frame the audience member sees. It takes a while to process and digest.
"Usually someone thinks of cinema with a more linear, narrative storyline. But for me the point isn't to understand that one storyline, which is only one element among many, and the process is much more of an elemental, emotional thing than an intellectual one. It has more to do with perception than understanding. So the movie is organized from a very subjective point of view."
In her early 20s, Martel studied animation before making live-action short films. Her first feature, "La Cienaga," won prizes at Sundance and Berlin in 2001, and her second feature, "The Holy Girl," screened as part of the main competition at the 2004 Cannes Film Festival. Martel had seemingly segued smoothly into the world festival circuit, appearing on juries at prestigious film festivals, and having her second and third films produced in part by celebrated Spanish filmmaker Pedro Almodovar, who struck up a friendship after seeing "La Cienaga."
With her ever-present dark glasses -- she says her eyes are extra-sensitive to light -- and tousled mane of chestnut hair and fierce intellectual acuity, Martel has carefully cultivated a persona just as much as such perennial festival darlings as Almodovar, Wong Kar-Wai and Lars von Trier. Which made the drubbing that "The Headless Woman" received after its premiere in competition at the 2008 Cannes Film Festival, where its subjective point of view and unhurried pacing was widely reported to have been met by derisive boos, all the more surprising.
Where filmmakers on the world stage often proclaim they make films only for themselves, Martel is careful to add that, for all the seeming rigor of her work, she is always keeping in mind the experience of those who actually have to sit and watch her films.
"For me the only thing that matters is the audience," said Martel. "It sounds contradictory, because my films are not popular, but I'm not trying not to be, that is just what happens. The audience is primal for me in every single stage from writing to mixing the sound. I'm thinking of their visceral experience, they are always there."