Lucrecia Martel’s hallucinatory new film “The Headless Woman” could just as well be called “The Hazy Woman.” While the film’s protagonist, the middle-aged Vero, appears headless, literally, in several images — with the frame cutting her off at the neck — she’s also shown walking around in a daze, with blurry cinematography providing a visual metaphor for her shell-shocked state. The routines of her existence — car rides, sitting at home, getting tests at a hospital — become a fuzzy, alien landscape through which she floats like a drifting astronaut.
That effect, created with a long lens on the camera, can be seen most clearly in a scene a third of the way through, in which the “kid who washes the cars” stands in Vero’s entryway. The extreme shallow focus distorts the boy to such a degree that he appears an amorphous phantom in the background — a possible evocation of the child that Vero may or may not have hit in her car at the outset of the film.
If images like that might seem more fit for dream sequences, there are plenty of filmmakers who’ve found it just right to evoke a character’s troubled waking state. Martel, certainly, along with American directing duo Ryan Fleck and Anna Boden, Brits Lynne Ramsay and Andrea Arnold and Turkey’s Nuri Bilge Ceylan — all employ this intense shallow focus technique to describe their protagonists’ dazed and confused minds.
Shallow focus is no new innovation, of course. It’s been around since the early days of Hollywood, eventually becoming a contrivance for close-ups and then a favorite tool for filmmakers in the ’70s (like Robert Altman, Mike Nichols). But while Hollywood directors, past and present, used the long lens to make glamorous stars pop out from the background, and New Hollywood filmmakers racked focus to dramatically call attention to different parts of the frame, today’s auteurs are bringing those blurry backdrops to the fore. Instead of disregarding what’s not in focus, viewers are forced to reckon with the miasma that lurks behind or envelopes the characters.
For whatever reason, a handful of the contemporary films that use shallow focus this way happen to involve men and women traumatized by a lost child. At the 2008 Cannes Film Festival, where “The Headless Woman” premiered, Nuri Bilge Ceylan’s “Three Monkeys” employed an otherworldly depth of field to conjure up a family’s barely suppressed trauma in the form of a phantom child lurking in the characters’ memories and in the frame’s background.
Ceylan uses the technique selectively, as he did in 2006’s “Climates” as a way of showing the gulf between a wife and husband. But filmmakers like Andrea Arnold, in her 2006 debut “Red Road,” which follows a woman reeling from a car accident that left her husband and daughter killed, and Belgian director Fien Troch, in last year’s head-scratcher “Unspoken” — which observes a French couple unraveling four years after their young daughter has disappeared — envision their grieving characters’ worlds as murky, ominous nightmares.
Not all of the films that use shallow focus do it to express the effects of personal disaster. For many, it’s an effective visual shorthand for displaying a character’s sense of alienation.
In “Sugar,” Ryan Fleck and Anne Boden’s otherwise naturalist portrait of an up-and-coming Dominican baseball player, an extraordinary, expressionistic shallow-focus shot midway through the film breaks from the realistic milieu to convey the extent of the protagonist’s dislocation. Newly transplanted to Bridgetown, Iowa and trying to find his way in the American Midwest, Sugar finds himself ambling through an indoor entertainment center that takes on the air of a spaceship; the camera tracks along with him as the flickering lights of the videogame machines and bowling alley displays become one big isolating blur.