Lucrecia Martel's script here focuses largely on a femme dentist who accidentally hits a boy with her car and runs.

Lucrecia Martel’s “The Headless Woman” is a simpler and more taut, if slightly less interesting version of the oblique but mesmerizing studies of family life in fetid, hothouse atmospheres the Argentine helmer offered up in “La cienaga” and “The Holy Girl.” In contrast to the tangled storylines of those previous efforts, Martel’s script here focuses largely on a femme dentist who accidentally hits a boy with her car and runs, but remains haunted by guilt. Pic ought to work up about the same small head of B.O. receipts as Martel’s last, depending on critical support.

Impressive pre-credits sequence, set in an unnamed area (though closing credits reveal the pic was shot in and around Salta in Northwest Argentina) contrasts worlds of the rich and poor. A group of young ragamuffins frolic around a dry canal by a roadside. A little later, well-to-do, attractive, middle-aged femme Vero (Maria Onetto) comes bombing along in her car. When she takes her eye off of the road to reach for her ringing cell phone, a sickening series of thumps indicate she’s hit something big.

Instead of stopping to look around at the scene, Vero drives on. She briefly visits the hospital and keeps a date that night for hotel sex with a man later revealed to be Juan Manuel (Daniel Genoud), who’s related to her by marriage, but she’s clearly in shock. Wandering around work and home with a hazy smile but glazed eyes, she reps a still, frozen center of gravity around which another one of Martel’s extended family ensembles orbits.

Turns out Juan Manuel is married to Josefina (Claudia Cantero), who’s either Vero’s sister or cousin — it’s not clear which — and Josefina is mother to teenage Candita (Ines Efron) who appears to have the hots for Vero. Vero herself is married to stolid Marcos (Cesar Bordon), with whom she’s had two daughters (barely glimpsed).

Everyone is in and out of each other’s houses, sharing rides to the plant nursery or buzzing about the town’s new swimming pool.

Unable to bear it any longer, Vero confesses to Marcos in the middle of a supermarket that she thinks she killed someone on the road. When evidence emerges that she’s not exaggerating, the menfolk in her orbit move to protect her secret.

Pic’s denouement is chilling, but doesn’t provide the same kind of enigmatic kicker that graced “The Holy Girl.” Despite the guilt theme, thesp Onetto keeps Vero’s signs of anxiety so subtle she almost doesn’t seem all that bothered. Maybe she’s not, and maybe that’s the point, but if this is a work of social criticism, indicting the callousness of the rich, it’s pretty mild stuff.

On the plus side, Martel once again demonstrates an acute eye for detail that forces auds to study her compositions and dialogue closely. For instance, just after the accident, the sunlit glare shows small, child-sized handprints all over the driver’s side window. They might have been made by Vero’s young relatives who had been playing near her car earlier — or by the victim himself.

Music is strictly source, offering no easy guides as to how to read the pic’s emotional tenor, although subsonic rumbles add a subconscious sense of unease. Widescreen lensing by Barbara Alvarez, deliberately overexposed at times, is unobtrusive but consistently effective. For the record, according to the pic’s press notes, the title refers more to a dream the helmer had during pre-production than to what happens onscreen, although it’s not a bad metaphor for the protagonist’s numbed state.

The Headless Woman

Argentina-Spain-France-Italy

Production

An Aqua Films (Argentina)/El Deseo (Spain)/Slot Machine (France)/Teodora, R&C (Italy) production, in association with Cine Argentino, Argentina Cinema, ICAA, with the participation of Fonds Sud Cinema, Ministry of Culture and Communication (Argentina)/CNC, Ministry of Foreign and European Affairs (France). (International sales: Focus Features Intl., London.) Produced by Pedro Almodovar, Augustin Almodovar, Esther Garcia, Veronica Cura, Enrique Pineyro, Lucrecia Martel, Marianne Slot, Vieri Razzini, Cesare Petrillo, Tilde Corsi. Executive producer, Veronica Cura. Directed, written by Lucrecia Martel.

Crew

Camera (color, widescreen), Barbara Alvarez; editor, Miguel Schverdfinger; art director, Maria Eugenia Sueiro; costume designer, Julio Suarez; sound (Dolby Digital), Hubert Teissade; sound director, Guido Berenblum. Reviewed at Cannes Film Festival (competing), May 20, 2008. Running time: 89 MIN.

With

Maria Onetto, Claudia Cantero, Ines Efron, Daniel Genoud, Cesar Bordon, Guillermo Arengo, Maria Vaner. (Spanish dialogue)

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