Argentine director Lucrecia Martel's third feature The Headless Woman debuted in competition at Cannes last year. It played for the press in the Debussy Theatre toward the later stages of the festival, significantly the night after the marathon screening of Steven Soderbergh’s two-part, four and a half hour Che. The mood was more exhaustive and tense than festive, and the movie did not go well that night.
This was just the most recent example (the very next morning, Philippe Garrel's Frontier of Dawn also got the jeer of the crowd). I was instantly hooked by Martel's film, if a little discombobulated. It's a great film, I think, but a hard one to appreciate, much less fully understand, on a single viewing, especially toward the end of a long, endurance test festival like Cannes.
The movie's sales agent stuck a hard negotiating stance, which delayed its American theatrical release, but the good, serious folks at Strand kept with it, and finally came to terms and opened the movie theatrically last week at Film Forum. I certainly would have preferred to watch it projected, but that option was not available to write about it a judicious manner. (The movie is now set to play the other major markets throughout the fall.)
The forty-two-year-old Martel grew up in the northeastern flatlands called Salta. All three of her feature films are set in that region. (Her previous works are the stunning La ciénaga and the startling, quixotic The Holy Girl.) Martel has established a cachet on the international festival circuit, and Pedro Almodovar has produced the last two films.
Her talent deserves wider exposure; her case illustrates just how fragile is the state of Spanish-language cinema in gaining any kind of significant presence here, especially the serious and idiosyncratic vernacular she works in. The Holy Girl was one of the final releases of the oddly shaped HBO and Fine Line Features alliance and it never got the necessary jolt or resources to develop an audience here.
(Lucrecia Martel at the top; Maria Onetto as the title character. Photos courtesy of Strand Releasing.)