Friday, February 25, 2011

Amnesiac Cinema: THE HEADLESS WOMAN (2008) and SUCCUBUS (1968)

  "I would have preferred modernity. Here you move and everything squeaks."

The amnesiac occupies an understandably hallowed place in post-war European cinema, where endless language barriers, generation and gender gaps, entangled ancient and modern architecture, passport red tape, culture shock, changing politics (communist insurgencies etc) and class stratification work both for and against a sense of formed identity. In any European metropolis, if a woman wakes up and doesn't remember her own name or what she's supposed to be doing with her life she can still get by fairly easily. As long as she's not too old or young or unattractive, is reasonably cool, sexually casual, happens to be wearing decent clothes and doesn't have a tendency to panic when things get weird, she can spend whole European films comfortably navigating bedrooms and jobs without ever losing her uneasy sense of displacement, or we in the audience--or the character she meets--ever knowing she even has amnesia. Is she just a 'modern' woman? Do these people she's talking even really know her? Are we supposed to know? If we stand up in the theater and announce we're lost in the plot we're liable to be heckled as a petit-bourgeois square. It's the 'not knowing' that opens the way for the 'modernist' response so coveted by the art house cinemagoer. Once a Bazin-ist figures out the plot, he gets up and leaves.

And it's always a woman with this hidden amnesia. Guys would never hide it. They'd grab the whole movie by the lapels and demand it become a detective yarn, grabbing the first pretty girl they find and begging her to let them crash on their couch and be cared for like a broken winged bird. But women if they're hot, don't even need to grab the lapels or tell the guy the truth. What guy would really worry about getting to know her past? He'd just remake her into his mother, or a whore. Why bother finding out the difference? Thus girls are comfortable conveying a nowness, a lack of past we all want to believe is the same thing as 'spontaneity.'

So... I hate to ask, but is the main character in THE HEADLESS WOMAN (2008) trying to conceal that she doesn't know who she is or who anyone else is, or is she faking amnesia to avoid having to report possibly running over a child (she bumped her head as she ran over whatever she thinks she may have hit)? No one asks her anything specific as she navigates her way forward through her days; she's able to cruise through her Argentine town on auto-pilot. Everyone--servants, husband, landscapers, patients (she's a doctor)--preparing for her arrival and departure like no matter where she chooses to go she's been expected.

Unless it comes with a big forwarding narration or establishing title crawl (i.e. "A long time ago in a galaxy far far away...") or is a sequel, we begin all films as amnesiacs (unless we've seen the movie before), so an amnesiac heroine can just seem... modern. It's also modern for her to actively resist interpretation, or labeling (She's more than just your whore, Charles!); it's as if she wanders into each new scene as if from the movie across the multiplex, and no one dares tell her she's in the wrong place. She resists our using her words and expressions to establish her identity and relationship to those around her. She stays neutral or 'surprising' so as to not admit she doesn't know the correct response to each new challenge. A man keeps bothering her, touching her, and if she doesn't know if its her husband, a lover, a brother, or just a pesky stalker, rather than dare ask she might just start loudly calling for attention, jumping up on a cafe table and trying to get him to sing. She doesn't dare ask who she is, as that would leave her vulnerable to their interpretation.

Anyone coming out of a long night or life of blackout drinking knows just how she feels. Wake up next to someone you don't know once or twice, and you'll 'get' what I mean.  You don't want to ask their names as that confirms you don't know them; it might seem prudish to ask if you had sex, or naive to ask if you used a condom, or dumb to ask where your pants are. Better to just sneak out while they're asleep.

The drawback to being so free of class distinctions here in the U.S. is that you can't just walk up to random people and start conversations and expect them to answer you and judge by your clothes and manner that you can be trusted; nor identify and expect to be taken care of by, a distinct indentured class (like the Argentine native-'Indian' population). Who do you choose to ask for directions when you're lost? What economic/class group are you in and which class are you comfortable exploiting? Can we ever be sure the person who approaches us and seems friendly won't in the end be just some homeless bum asking for money, or a psycho glommer, or a charming serial killer? If they act like our lover, maybe, they think, we're amnesiac enough to believe they are.

In THE HEADLESS WOMAN, the (possible) amnesiac is Veronica (Maria Onetto), a dentist in a small Argentine town. Wherever she goes people know just who she is, or seem to, and someone seems to be cleaning up her past behind her as she goes. Her amnesia begins when she hits her head on the roof of her car after running over... something-- either a dog or a small boy -- she can't trust herself to remember, and as the film goes on, we don't know what her game is. What first looks like a cop digging up bodies on the side of the road turns out to be a plumber digging up a clogged pipe; the droning dissonance of pop songs on the radio seem halfway to being haunting ghost voices in her head, they almost seem to accuse her. In one of the greatest scenes she hides out in a bathroom in the hospital and it takes awhile for her, and us, to realize the nurses barging in and kicking in the stalls are not after her. The only thing we do know: director-writer Lucretia Martel is a friggin' genius.

It helps to understand socialism and the much more enlightened way that doctors and dentists don't automatically get to be rich in places with truly socialized medicine. Argentina's doctors still make house calls and their hospitals have the kind of rundown institutionalized look we usually associate only with public high schools and prisons in this country. Frankly this how it should be, and having been there twice with my ex-wife, once before once after the economic collapse, I can vouch for the casual, physically affectionate way people relate to each other, based almost purely on signifiers of either the young intellectual class, which included doctors and dentists, the noveau riche (which most Argentines refer to simply as "gangsters") and the very poor, the local Indian class who here in the complex mise en scene of THE HEADLESS WOMEN have a kind of mystic spiritual omnipresence.

When looking for comparisons one must go to Russia, a huge cultural influence on the hip socialism of Argentina. Woody Allen's CRIMES AND MISDEMEANORS covers similar ground but is a shrill Jerry Lewis face compared to the subtlety of Lucretia Martel, which is born of Chekhov. Argentina has a close relationship to Russia, to the point where many people are given Russian names (1), Russia is certainly a land of an illustrious but strange, violent past and the 'amnesia' of THE HEADLESS WOMAN recalls the mystery of Anastasia,  the black spots in Russia's history thanks to its various purges and Argentina's own 'Reign of Terror.'

To explain, I quote this passage from Suddenness May Happen's Adrian Bregazzi:
On 24th March 1976, a military junta under General Jorge Videla overthrew the PerĂ³n government in Argentina. On 19th May, Borges, Ernesto Sabato and other writers met with Videla, expressing their support for the overthrowing of the PerĂ³nista terrors, and for Videla's stating that "the development of culture is essential for the development of a Nation."

Between 1976 and 1983 an estimated 30,000 people were 'disappeared' by the Argentinian Dictatorship. On 15th December 1983, writer Sabato became president of the newly-formed National Commission on the Disappearance of Persons, the government-established commission empowered to investigate the 'disappearance' of persons in Argentina over the previous 20 years.

In 2007, in his book “Cultural Amnesia”, (the now) Clive James published a personal diatribe against Borges, confiscating his years of creative work and judging him posthumously guilty of silence during the Dirty War of the Argentinian Dictatorship (1976-1983).
Not to get into the whole mess down there, as Martel's protagonist is so strange we're never quite sure if she even has amnesia. And I don't want to spoil the 'surprise' or lack thereof, let's just say that the openness of interpretation is key, because there are two ways to watch an amnesiac movie, and only one will give you pleasure, the other will make you feel 'left out'. If you assume the woman doesn't have amnesia, for example, the films listed here can seem distended, dull, unfocused, sort of like if you walk into an Antonioni film halfway through with a head full of sugar. If you bear in mind the amnesiac precept, you can get your mind kind of blown thinking about the world, language, cultural and gender barriers that separate us and make it relatively easy for a woman--or a country--to go through life with no sense of the past. And the best of both worlds is to have a protagonist who shares our foreign film culture shock in such a way as we never know which one of us really knows what's going on, and that's what ART is all about!


I first came to this conclusion watching SUCCUBUS (AKA NECRONOMICON), the 'Sensation of 67' a few years ago, who has a similarly amnesiac heroine, this one a nightclub performer who loses touch with reality and can't tell if she really is a sadistic killer or just plays one on stage:

Strange characters come up to her at the various soirees, seemingly thrilled to have found her at last, as if they've been looking and looking for Lorna since they last met. She merely stares at these interlopers blankly, not doubting what they say, but also not caring. In this context, the pick-up line, “Haven’t we met before?” takes on an extra creepy overtone. Anything that happened before the credits of the film--anything that we have not seen on-screen--does not exist for Lorna or for us. Thus relationships between Lorna and her lovers are always in flux. After her first performance, which is the first lengthy scene of the film, Lorna mysteriously appears at Mulligan’s (Jack Taylor) front door. He’s already in his bathrobe and when he answers, and seems to not remember who she is. As viewers, we can’t tell whether she’s just shown up uninvited like a stalker from the club or whether they in fact live together and are just playing a sexy game, or whether this is merely the result of language difficulties. Is he just hungover and doesn't trust his own memory? Is he used to inviting women to "come over later" and then forgetting who they even are? Or is he just, by default, unable to say no to a sure thing?

Whatever the real truth might be, the not-knowing works to both excite and disconcert. As the pair move playfully into the bedroom, we begin to think that maybe Lorna herself isn’t sure why she came there. Anyone who has ever tried to hide the fact that they don’t remember someone who knows them will relate. Is she taking advantage of his amnesia, or is he taking advantage of hers? Or is Franco's sporadically amateurish direction and the bad dubbing (2). In the cat and mouse game of who remembers what, it’s the being in the moment that counts, and Franco’s sense of the moment, and the erotic by extension, is very advanced—and perfectly suited to the world of jetsetting, booze-swilling, partner swapping glitterati of swingin’ ’67!

From there the film just keeps rolling back and forth through a haze of flashbacks, dreams and different countries. Lorna feels her way through events by the impulses coming from her unconscious, be they to seduce, kill or spout poetic monologues. She bears her amnesia close to the vest and in this way she is a perfect stand-in for the viewer, the "art film" viewer in particular, who may be forever wondering what's going on in the narrative themselves. We've all walked into the middle of a movie before, and had to instantly guess what was going on and who was what to who, people sshhh-ing us if we asked what was going on. So wither la Succubus? Is Franco a bad director with no vision, or is he a genius whose films improve on repeat viewings?” To paraphrase the stilted English dialog in the film: “What good would it do to freak out about amnesia when not knowing can be so pleasurable?”

(...) And of course, with the ancient architecture of Europe backing her up, Lorna’s amnesia stretches back far longer than her American counterparts: the amnesiacs in Memento and Mulholland Drive can only regress a little ways in their young, gaudy, pre-fab countrysides. Vertigo’s Carlotta Vance has to come from the pre-U.S., version of California, requiring long drives in Scottie’s car out to nationally preserved landmarks. Lorna’s European location allows for so much ancient architecture all around her that her amnesia can slide back through several centuries without much effort.

(More here: Time Travel for Amnesiacs: Succubus and the Moebius Love Strip)
1. My Argentine ex-wife was given the Russian name Natacha, for example, and strangely enough, she looks a lot like the girl in the upper right of the top picture. 
2. Inevitably these 'international' productions are filmed MOS or with actors all speaking in their own languages, then for the dubbing the actors contribute to the language track of their native tongue, so Jack Taylor might contribute to the English track but not the French, while a French actress vice versa, etc.

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