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“Headless Woman” Director Lucrecia Martel: My love of storytelling comes from oral tradition

"Headless Woman" Director Lucrecia Martel: My love of storytelling comes from oral tradition

Argentine director Lucrecia Martel’s drama/thriller “La Mujer sin Cabeza” (The Headless Woman) follows a bourgeois woman (Maria Onetto), who is is driving alone on a dirt road, becomes distracted, and runs over something. In the days following, she is dazed and emotionally disconnected from the people and events in her life, becoming obsessed with the possibility that she may have killed someone. The police confirm that there were no accidents reported in the area and everything returns to normal until a gruesome discovery is made.

In 2001, Martel directed the film La Cienaga (The Swamp), which won awards in Berlin, Havana, Toulouse, and Sundance, among other festivals. In 2004, Martel wrote and directed La Nina Santa (The Holy Girl), which competed for the Cannes Film Festival Palm d’Or, nad she served on the Cannes competition jury in 2006. Strand Releasing opened “The Headless Woman” at New York’s Film Forum yesterday (Wednesday, August 19) with more dates to follow.

[Editor’s Note: indieWIRE sent questions to Ms. Martel in Buenos Aires via email in English and she responded in her native Spanish. We are including her complete responses in Spanish, with an English translation italicized below each of her responses.]

indieWIRE: The title of the film is “La Mujer sin Cabeza,” which in English is literally translated as a “headless woman.” Are you also implying that she is not “using her head”. Does this distinction seem appropriate?

Lucrecia Martel: El titulo hace una referencia a algun problema con la cabeza, pero lo que me gusta es que suena a clase B. Me gustan los titulos de las peliculas clase B. Uno podria encontrar en un estante de peliculas de terror titulos como “La Cienaga,” “La Nina Santa” o “La Mujer sin Cabeza.”

Translated: The title refers to a problem with the head, but what I like is that it sounds like a B-movie. I like the titles of B-movies. One might find on a shelf of titles such horror films as “La Cienaga,” “La Nina Santa,” or “The Headless Woman.”

iW: As a filmmaker is it important to love, or at least accept or sympathize with your characters? Do you have to be able to find something in them that you can respect or understand?

LM: Escribo sobre lo que conozco y no entiendo. Emociones por las que he pasado. Quizas las circunstancias pueden ser distintas en la pelicula, pero las emociones las he experimentado. Digo esto solo para explicar que es dificil estar lejos de los personajes. Les deseo la misma felicidad que deseo para mi.

Translated: I write about what I know and also what I don’t understand. Emotions for what has transpired. The circumstances may be different in the film, but the emotions are those that I’ve experienced. I say this only to explain that it is difficult to be far from the characters. I wish them the same happiness I wish for myself.

iW: A friend described your work to me as “kaleidoscopic.” This idea of your films being “a succession of changing phases or action.” That’s intruiging to me. Is this a fair interpretation of your style?

LM: Ningun director de cine se enojaria con esa apreciacion. Puedo decirle como hago la pelicula y lo que deseo compartir con el espectador, pero el exacto efecto que una pelicula provoca en un espectador es un milagro, o mejor dicho, un misterio. Estas peliculas fueron escritas por capas, las capas estan presentes a lo largo de toda la pelicula, es decir, en todas las escenas estan presentes todos los elementos que desarrolla el film. Cada escena es una mezcla particular de esos elementos. Por ejemplo, siempre uso el mismo ejemplo, aunque no pertenece a ninguna de las peliculas, un cuchillo puede aparecer como palabra en el titulo, como sonido metalico en la siguiente escena, como reflejo lejano en la tercera, etc, pero el cuchillo esta en todas las escenas.

Translated: No filmmaker would be annoyed with such an assessment. I can tell you how I make the film and want to share it with the audience, but the exact effect that a film has on a viewer is a miracle, or rather, a mystery. These films were written with layers, the layers are present throughout the film, ie. in all the scenes there are elements that develop the film. Every scene is a particular mix of these elements. For example, I always use the same example, which does not necessarily belong to any one of the movies — a knife can appear as a word in a title, sounds like metal in the next scene, reflecting back in the third, etc., but the knife is in all of the scenes.

iW: Quoting from the same friend, who is a big fan of your work: “Her very observational, detached critiques of the middle class seem very literary to me. It’s interesting that by being so deliberately ‘uncinematic,’ she seems to have reached a purer cinema. I think you could definitely say that all three of her features are pure cinema — the definition of what cinema is: strong images interlocking, opposing, strengthening, enriching each other. I guess I’m just curious how she arrived at this type of filmmaking.” Could you react to that assessment?

LM: Me da curiosidad esa idea de pureza del cine. Existira algo asi?

Translated: I am intrigued by this pure idea of cinema. I wonder if this really exists?

iW: Your films are about more than traditional “storytelling” or “plot.” Could you elaborate on how you define cinema?

LM: Una pelicula es un proceso de pensamiento, lo cual no es opuesto a proceso emotivo. La emocion y el pensamiento no ***son sustancias distintas. Y como le decia, escribiendo las peliculas con este sistema de capas, la trama es una linea muy debil, en donde los puntos de quiebre no son tan importantes como la acumulacion de elementos.

Translated: A film is a process of thinking that is not opposed to an emotional process. Emotion and thinking are not distinct substances. And as I said, writing movies with this system of layers – the fabric is very weak – where breaking points are not as important as the accumulation of elements.

María Onetto in a scene from Lucrecia Martel’s “The Headless Woman.” Image courtesy of Strand Releasing.

iW: Do you feel that “The Headless Woman” is different, or similar, to your previous films, either thematically or stylistically?

LM: No lo se. La Cienaga era una observacion de un periodo corto de tiempo, como la Mujer sin Cabeza, La Nina Santa era mas bien un cuento.

Translated: I don’t know. “La Cinega” was an observation of a short period of time, while “The Headless Woman” and “La Nina Santa” are more of a story.

iW: Do you have a sense of how your study of animation affected your approach to filmmaking or interest in it?

LM: Sin duda, cuando haciamos animacion cada cuadro era importante, cada movimiento definia el caracter de un personaje. Y la construccion de la profundidad a traves de capas. Lo que sobraba se notaba mucho. Si, sin duda eso me enseno mucho.

Translation: Without doubt, in animation each frame is important, every movement defines the character. And the construction of that depth through layers. What is seen matters quite a bit. Yes, it certainly taught me a lot.

iW: If we may say so, you have a great sense of personal style. Can you share some insight into what influences that style? Similarly, could you share a bit of background on the influences on your cinematic style or approach to filmmaking?

LM: El gusto por narrar me viene de las tradiciones orales, de los cuentos de mi abuela, las conversaciones de mi mama. El mundo de las conversaciones esta lleno de condensaciones, derivas, malentendidos, repeticiones. Esos son los materiales con los que trabajo. Mi deuda es con esas mujeres.

Translated: My love of storytelling comes from oral tradition, the stories from my grandmother and conversations with [my] mother. The world is full of discussions of condensation, drifts, misunderstanding, repetition. These are the materials I work with. My debt is to these women.

iW: Last year, “The Headless Woman” was the top film in indieWIRE’s Critics’ Poll of the best films without distribution. Do you think much about how the modes for distributing cinema today are changing, and what that might mean for the way that films are seen in the future?

LM: El consumo de informacion, de peliculas, de musica esta cambiando tanto en estas ultimas decadas que es dificil saber en que devendra el mercado de cine que no puede llegar facilmente a las salas. Soy bastante optimista respecto al desencanto que produce la homogeneidad, en general. El cine que triunfa en las salas es bastante homogeneo en cuanto a narrativa y vision del mundo. Creo que tarde o temprano habra una enorme curiosidad por todo aquello que hoy no es masivo. Me preocupa que una pelicula sin un costoso aparato publicitario no pueda establecer una relacion con el publico contemporaneo, claro. Pero intento no sujetar mi percepcion del tiempo a la del mercado.

Translation: The consumption of information, films, music has been changing in recent decades. It’s hard to know what will become the film that can not easily reach [audiences]. I am fairly optimistic about the disillusionment that produces homogeneity in general. The films that succeed in [theaters] are fairly homogeneous in terms of narrative and vision of the world. I think sooner or later, there will be a huge curiosity about everything that today is not massive. [Editor’s note: Or things that don’t receive widespread attention currently] I am concerned that a film without an large advertising [budget] can not establish a connection with contemporary audiences, of course. But try not to hold my perception of time to the market.

iW: Can you share a bit about what you are working on now?

LM: Estoy escribiendo. Retome un guion que estaba escribiendo antes de La Mujer sin Cabeza. Creo que habria que ponerlo dentro del genero fantastico. Es una invasion de naturaleza extrana. Una amenaza de jardin. Parientes no deseados o desconocidos que aparecen en nuestras casas y viven en el jardin. Verdaderos monstruos. Bueno, estoy escribiendo sobre eso, no se si sera la proxima pelicula.

Translation: I am writing. I started a script before I was writing “The Headless Woman.” I think we should put it in the fantasy genre. It is a strange kind of invasion. A threat to [a] garden. Unwanted or unknown relatives that appear in our houses and live in the garden. Real monsters. Well, I’m writing about this, but I do not know if it will be my next movie.

Andy Lauer contributed to this interview

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