Holy Girls and Headless Women: The Films of Lucrecia Martel
November 27- December 4 at TIFF Cinematheque (for tickets and programme information, go to www.cinemathequeontario.ca)

Although she is rarely seen in public without a pair of large, conspicuously dark sunglasses, Lucrecia Martel is one of the most clear-eyed film artists at work today. This is why the culture vultures at TIFF Cinematheque have graced the 43-year old director with a retrospective – including the Canadian theatrical premiere of her latest film, the nervy, Hitchcock-inspired thriller The Headless Woman — just eight years into her career.

A darling of the Cannes film festival, Martel has cut a singular figure on the Croisette, with more than one journalist making reference to her elegant fashion sense and calculatedly unruly, “pre-Raphaelite” hairdo. But the real style is on the screen, where Martel has cultivated the sort of brainy-sexy sensibility that has film critics reaching for damp cloths to go with their thesauruses. Her 2001 debut, La Cienaga, offers a steamy tweak on the family-from-hell drama, utilizing stealthy camera movements to pinpoint the physical and spiritual rot of an extended, incestuous middle-class family. The sense of exhaustion and decadence is palpable; these people barely have the strength to avoid the broken wine glasses littering the deck of their backyard pool.

If La Cienaga is humid, Martel’s next film, The Holy Girl, is absolutely drenched. Its titular protagonist is a fourteen-year old girl (the amazing Maria Alche) whose Catholic mindset bumps up against her screaming libido, creating all manner of complications in the dilapidated hotel where she lives with her similarly crumbling mother. The plot, which finds both women drawn towards the same nerdy, middle-aged doctor, is almost the stuff of screwball comedy, but Martel’s intimate visuals, which linger lovingly on the napes of necks and the curves of calves, slow things down to an exquisite, sensual boil.

The Headless Woman
takes Martel’s up-close-and-personal aesthetic even farther: her neatest trick is to stage the story’s key incident – a driving mishap on a country road – so that we’re just as confused about what – or who – was actually hit as the driver herself. The rest of the film follows Vero (Maria Onetto, whose spectacularly tangled hairdo is perhaps a bit of directorial self-homage) as she tries to remember what happened; this, even as the people — mostly the men — in her bourgeois circle keep insisting that she should forget. Suggestive and disturbing, The Headless Woman is an utterly precise film about blurred memory: such are the thrilling contradictions of an oeuvre that may one day warrant consideration amongst the medium’s titans.

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