Lucrecia Martel's three mischievous films scramble normal narrative hierarchies, privileging sensation to exposition, desire to explanation, and intuition to realism. Thunder-clapped fairy tales of unknowing, they have an adolescent's sensitivity to the strangeness of the adult world. Outside of Tsai Ming-liang, it's difficult to think of another working director with such a productive obsession with water. Martel is attracted to locations where her characters can sink, like pools and beds, and she arranges her multiplanar compositions so that these figures appear as floating heads and torsos.
The apprehensive tilt of Martel's stories is left undefined, just on the cusp of horror, but the director's formal coordination of sound and image is anything but imprecise. Her humid aesthetic popped out fully formed in the opening minutes of 2001's La Ciénaga ("The Swamp"), in which the sloshing reds of blood and wine, a padded sound design, and viscous handheld camera movements conduct an atrophying bourgeois scene with the heavy-lidded amplitude of a Caravaggio. The Holy Girl (2004) further demonstrated Martel's skill at playing for senses other than reason. Her new work, The Headless Woman, is her most expressly psychological yet, and thus entails a newly concentrated application of her unusual narration style a kind of intimate, hooded third person in which neurosis and desire register as phenomenology.
The woman of the title (which doesn't translate literally) is another of Martel's dislodged bourgeoisie women. Driving home from a gabby gathering, she runs over something while absentmindedly reaching for her cell phone; after this, her mind absents her. Perhaps amnesiac, but at the least traumatized, Veronica (Maria Onetto) reenters her everyday life in a fog. Her weak smiles and mute replies will irritate some viewers, especially those who reflexively despise the withholding ambiguity of Antonioni films like 1964's Red Desert (Martel's characters, like Antonioni's, often put on sunglasses at odd moments, as if to shield their wanting souls). What's remarkable about The Headless Woman in comparison to so many art house pretenders, however, is that Martel is able to maintain this high level of uncertainty without letting the story go slack. As much as Veronica seems to drift, the film's carefully calibrated ruptures make it so she cannot keep the world at bay.
HOLY GIRLS AND HEADLESS WOMEN: THE FILMS OF LUCRECIA MARTEL
July 1415 and 23, 7:30 p.m. (Martel in person July 1415), $8
Yerba Buena Center for the Arts, 701 Mission, SF
(415) 978-2787, www.ybca.org