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The Look of Being Lost

The Look of Being Lost (photo)

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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.

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The Best Of The Last

Portlandia Goes Out With A Bang

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The end is near. In mere days Portlandia wraps up its final season, and oh what a season it’s been. Lucky for you, you can watch the entire season right now right here and on the IFC app, including this free episode courtesy of Subaru.

But now, let’s take a moment to look back at some of the new classics Fred and Carrie have so thoughtfully bestowed upon us. (We’ll be looking back through tear-blurred eyes, but you do you.)

Couples Dinner

It’s not that being single sucks, it’s that you suck if you’re single.

Cancel it!

A sketch for anyone who has cancelled more appointments than they’ve kept. Which is everyone.

Forgotten America

This one’s a “Serial” killer…everything both right and wrong about true crime podcasts.

Wedding Planners

The only bad wedding is a boring wedding.

Disaster Hut

It’s only the end of the world if your doomsday kit doesn’t include rosé.

Catch up on Portlandia’s final episodes on demand and at

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Your Portlandia Personality Test

The New Portlandia Webseries Is Going Your Way

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Carrie and Fred understand that although we have so much in common, we’re each so beautifully unique and different. To help us navigate those differences, Portlandia has found an easy and honest way to embrace our special selves in the form of a progressive new traffic system: a specific lane for every kind of driver. It’s all in honor of the show’s 8th and final season, and it’s all presented by Subaru.

Ready to find out who you really are? Match your personality to a lane and hop on the expressway to self-understanding.

Lane 10: Trucks Piled With Junk

Your junk is falling out of your trunk. Shake a tail light, people — this lane is for you.

Lane 33: Twins

You’re like a Gemini, but waaaay more pedestrian. Maybe you and a friend just wear the same outfits a lot. Who cares, it’s just twinning enough to make you feel special.

Lane 27: Broken Windows

Bad luck follows you around and everyone knows it. Your proverbial seat is always damp from proverbial rain. Is this the universe telling you to swallow your pride? Yes.

Lane 69: Filthy Cars

You’re all about convenience. Getting your car washed while you drive is a no-brainer.

Lane 43: Newly Divorced Singles

It’s been a while since you’ve driven alone, and you don’t know the rules of the road anymore. What’s too fast? What’s too slow? Are you sending the right signals? Don’t worry, the breakdown lane is nearby if you need it.

Still can’t find a lane to match your personality? Check out all the videos here. And see the final season of Portlandia this spring on IFC.

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Last-Minute Holiday Gift Guide

Hits from the '80s are on repeat all Christmas Eve and Day on IFC.

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GIFs via Giphy, Photos via The Everett Collection

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