When each successive film from a new, audacious talent seems richer and more rewarding than the one before, it can sometimes be hard to tell whether the director is steadily improving or it’s simply taking you some time and effort to learn how to watch his/her movies. Argentina’s Lucrecia Martel arrived on the international film scene eight years ago with her unique style already fully formed; as much as I admired “La Ciénaga”‘s exactingly off-kilter compositions and oppressively incestuous tone, though, I couldn’t find much of interest lurking beneath that surface mastery. It took two viewings for “The Holy Girl” (2004), Martel’s sophomore effort, to win me over, and even then I didn’t fully understand why certain oblique, uninflected shots were doing such a harrowing number on my nervous system. Now along comes her magnificently confounding “The Headless Woman,” and I officially surrender. Maybe she’s finally put it all together, maybe I’m just slow — either way, this is one stunning piece of work.
Still, it’s tough to articulate precisely what’s so discomfiting about it. Martel begins with what for her amounts to a high concept: On the way home from an outing with friends, a middle-aged, bottle-blonde woman, Véro (María Onetto), runs over something with her car. We’ve previously seen a couple of kids playing with their dog in that general area, and Martel shows us the victim — or at least a victim — in Véro’s rear-view mirror. (Some critics claim this image is ambiguous, but on the big screen, at least, you can clearly see what’s lying on the road.) Véro sees it, too, but simply drives on, betraying no particular emotion. And as we follow her around for the next few days, watching her interact with family and co-workers, it becomes evident that she’s entered some sort of bizarre fugue state, to the point where it’s not clear that she has any recollection whatsoever of who she is or what she does. Eventually, however, as she regains her bearings, one key memory emerges: She thinks she may have killed a child.
As pure filmmaking, “The Headless Woman” is indisputably superb and non-stop evocative; there’s scarcely a shot that doesn’t throb with ambiguous menace or portent. Indeed, there’s a strong genetic resemblance to David Lynch’s “Inland Empire,” another tale of a wealthy middle-aged woman who tumbles down an unexplained rabbit hole. (Laura Dern and María Onetto, it turns out, are almost exactly the same age.) But where Lynch’s overt surrealism and Dern’s mannered mutations set my teeth on edge — “golly, ain’t this bizarre?” — Onetto’s aimless journey as She With No Noggin is truly the stuff of nightmares, if only because the lady will not stop smiling. The rest of the world chugs along as if nothing has happened, but Véro has come unmoored — a sensation that we fully share, because Martel cannily stages the accident mere seconds after introducing the character, so that we know absolutely nothing about her. She’s surprised to discover that she’s a dentist, and so are we. Who is this man now suddenly kissing her? Beats her; beats us. And yet her reaction to each successive jolt is identical: vaguely warm indulgence. Nor is there a moment anywhere in the film where she identifiably regains her sense of self, though it’s clearly happened by the time she makes her confession.
In truth, what Véro actually hit with her car doesn’t much matter. It’s her dissociated reaction that interests Martel — that, and the way Véro’s bourgeois circle both fails to notice the change in her and methodically covers up any evidence of the crime she may well have committed. On second viewing, I became more conscious of a pointed socio-political undercurrent: The kids we see in the opening scene are dark-skinned — part of Argentina’s sizable racial underclass — and oblivious, porcelain Véro spends the rest of the movie moving amongst a baleful, barely glimpsed chorus of silent workers and servants, her amnesia symbolic of a larger, more willful ignorance. But that’s a purely intellectual response, and it can’t compare to the inexplicable feeling of anxiety inspired by, say, an apparently mundane shot of Véro as seen through the windshield of her car, wandering in a daze as fat raindrops begin to fall from the clouds overhead. Martel’s ideas are plenty cogent and provocative, but they tend to register only afterward, when you try to work out what you’ve seen. It’s her buzzsaw mise-en-scène that threatens to decapitate you.
No heads roll in “Inglourious Basterds,” as I recall, but if you’ve always longed to see a pissed-off Jew beating the shit out of a Nazi with a baseball bat, Quentin Tarantino’s goofy, long-winded, deliberately misspelled exercise in vicarious wish-fulfillment is for you. Over the many years that this project was in some form of gestation, QT generally made it sound like his version of “The Dirty Dozen” or “The Guns of Navarone” — an action-heavy, dudes-on-a-mission war flick — and that’s how it’s being sold in the trailers and commercials. Be advised, however, that Brad Pitt and his crew of Semitic “basterds” (including “Hostel” director Eli Roth and “The Office”‘s B.J. Novak) play a surprisingly small role, often disappearing for entire reels. Nor is there much in the way of kinetic mayhem, for that matter. This may be the first war movie since “The Wannsee Conference” to consist almost entirely of people just sitting at a table, talking.
Of course, Tarantino has always been able to bring the rococo dialogue, and he’s even more adept at providing a showcase for little-known or long-forgotten actors. Austrian-born thesp Christoph Waltz, who deservedly won a prize at Cannes last May, walks away with the movie from its superbly tense 25-minute-long opening scene, in which his Nazi “Jew hunter,” Col. Hans Landa, interrogates a French dairy farmer who’s hiding a terrified family beneath his floorboards. And there are a handful of other entertaining gabfests throughout, many of them touching on film-buff trivia — Tarantino’s absurdly touching goal here is to rewrite history so that cinema saves the world (with an assist from pissed-off Jews). Still, this is the first film he’s directed in which it feels like he’s coasting a bit, doing lazy riffs on genre favorites without any real sense of urgency or purpose. At two and a half hours, it’s the longest, most discursive B-movie programmer Tarantino’s ever made — an epic footnote in a storied career.