Thursday, December 30, 2010

35 Shots of Rum/The Headless Woman

35 Shots of Rum (Claire Denis, 2009) [7] / The Headless Woman (Lucrecia Martel, 2009) [8]

Both of these occupy similar space in my head, even if they aren't quite the same films. The Headless Woman feels like a Denis film while 35 Shots is a fairly straightforward film with moments expected out of Denis' work.

Coming after the intriguing but nearly incomprehensible The Intruder, 35 Shots of Rum is about as straightforward as you could get out of Denis. Focusing on a father and daughter and their relationships with a circle of friends and perhaps former lovers, the film is more a lyrical mediation than an actual narrative. Like most of Denis' films, the best moments for me are found in the moments where narrative takes a back seat. The opening sequence of trains moving through Paris sets a tone that anyone familiar with Denis can comprehend. The film's coup de grace is the much noted barroom scene, where the characters dance quietly to The Commordore's 'Night Shift', a moment that finds similar ground as Beau Travail. It's a beautiful moment in an understated film that lack of complexity is its best virtue.

Lack of complexity is not something to be attributed to The Headless Woman, a near inscrutable work that dabbles into class struggle, fantasy, and Hitchockian eeriness. What the film lacks in an understandable narrative it more than makes up for in Martel's formal mastery, as the film is brimming with fantastic shots. The story, from what I can gauge, centers on Vero, a well off dentist, returning home from a party. While driving home, she hits either a dog or a child, what exactly she or the viewer is never quite sure. This leads to Vero becoming more and more detached from her daily tasks, as she passes from scene to scene with only the help of others to get her through. This leads to one of the most striking scenes I've seen in film this year, as Vero is sort of "shocked" back to reality, where a burst of light and noise capture the screen. It's a scene of realignment for Vero, as she returns to consciousness but still racked with guilt over what she hit. Not much is concretely explained beyond that but Martel use of space and focus in composing her shots are excellent, almost mimicking Vero's existence as she navigates the film. I'm not familiar with Martel's previous work but knowing she deals heavily with social satire and class, one of the film's most interesting dynamic is the the class distinction in Vero's world. She, with blonde hair and European ancestry (to my best estimate) has a lucrative position as a dentist in a rural area with a large indigenous ancestry population. Many of these people work for Vero and they help her guide her through her "headless" state. The scene mentioned above is almost the epitome of this master/servant relationship. Outside of that, making much of heads or tails out of The Headless Woman is a fruitless exercise. Yet, its formal excellence makes dismissing it nearly impossible. It's certainly impressive in its inscrutability.

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