In Headless Woman, Veronica (Argentine actress Maria Onetto) drifts through the aftermath of a tragic car accident smiling as mysteriously as the Mona Lisa, while the lives of others flow around her. Has she killed someone, something, or only imagined it? Has she checked into a hospital afterwards, stayed overnight at a hotel? She can’t remember.
The entire film has a dream-like quality, with Onetto going through the motions of work, family, marketing, household, friendships. Directed by Lucretia Martel (and generated, not surprisingly, by a dream of Martel’s own), Headless Woman draws the viewer in seductively, detail by tiny detail. We learn more: Veronica’s niece is attracted to her; her cousin is having an affair with her; her languorous persona and that mysterious smile are like magnets. Yet she can’t quite escape her memory of what may have happened. Consequences of the economic gulf between haves and have-nots are implied, and Martel’s eye for what counts is unerring.
In the end, Veronica’s relatives have her hospital and hotel records erased; memory of the accident’s victim quickly disappears into the working-class family that mourns him, and Veronica is free to take up her routines as if nothing had happened. The film is beautifully made, its lives meticulously observed. It casts a spell, just like its leading lady.
Santiago was the Salles family’s butler for decades, supervising a palatial home and a staff of 22. Director João Moreira Salles, (brother of filmmaker Walter) returned to that home (now deserted) to film Santiago (now retired) for three days in 1992, interviewing him about his duties with the Salles family and his life-long magnum opus—a 30,000-page history of mankind’s kings, emperors, and aristocracy, especially the Medicis, whom he worshipped above all others. It now lies on shelves behind Santiago, each dynasty neatly typed and bound in ribbon, extended by images of its subjects framed on the walls.
Santiago is forever obsessed with every detail of their outsize human drama. “They are dead,” he admits, “but not for me.” As Salles interviews him, he displays the soul of an artist manqué, who did his job for the family to perfection, but existed emotionally entirely in the pursuit of his real life’s work.
Too late (Santiago has died since Salles first filmed him), Salles recognizes the value of his subject. Out of the original three-day interview, the pages of Santiago’s enormous manuscript, his paintings and sculptures, some family ghosts in the deserted house, and poetry, Salles fashions his film–“something out of nothing” — an original and haunting portrait. In a way, it’s reminiscent of Maximillian Schell’s film of Marlene Dietrich; she allowed him to audiotape her at length, but refused to permit him to turn on his camera. Schell stubbornly, slyly, rose to the challenge, and so does Salles.
Santiago grows steadlily richer as Salles probes Santiago’s passion, revealing his own failings in the process. As Salles observes ruefully, “He was embarrassed. I placed a distance between us; I was the son of the owner, and he was the butler.” His ability to make fun of his own directorial role, with hindsight and humility gained in the intervening years, is very much part of the film’s charms.
Inspired by the loss of both his parents, Hirokazu Kore-Eda says Still Walking is a film “launched by the experience of regret that we all share.” The family is Japanese, but its generational tensions and pleasures are universal. Taking place (mostly) during one long day and night during a son and daughter’s visit to their parents’ seaside town, the minutiae of their shared history is revisited over painstakingly prepared meals extended by take-out sushi. The family visits the grave of another son who died young and will always be mourned. The surviving children are indifferent to their parents’ concerns.
Once again, details that give shape and meaning to everyday life are observed, here by Kore-Eda’s clear and sympathetic eye but, this time, accumulate to express regret for what we all fail to do for the living. This is a really beautiful and elegaic work, shot mostly in the claustrophobic space of the family dining room, occasionally opening up to nearby streets and parks and, once, to the sea itself—the source of life and, in the case of the Yokoyama family, the scene of the tragic accidental death of the son so full of promise. Like the recent French film, Summer Hours, Still Walking is both delicately expressed and deeply satisfying.