Director: Sebastián Lelio
Stars: Daniela Vega, Francisco Reyes, Luis Gnecco
Triumphant last weekend in the Best Foreign Language Feature category at the Oscars, Sebastián Lelio’s A Fantastic Woman may have already topped this prestigious accolade by reopening the discussion over the Gender Identity Bill in its native Chile. The film, which makes a sensational star of Daniela Vega, examines the prejudices that a transgender woman encounters during a time of great emotional upheaval. It’s a humanising film for a section of society that is poorly represented in cinema. That watchword of our times – representation – is key here, and with its surging empathy, A Fantastic Woman should become a progressive South American landmark.
Vega plays Marina. At the beginning of the film we see her and her (significantly older) partner Orlando (Francisco Reyes) drunkenly return home to his flat. In the night he feels unwell and falls down the stairs. Marina takes him to hospital where he shortly dies of an aneurysm. But as the disparate members of Orlando’s family assemble, Marina finds herself outcast and the subject of bitter and resentful aggressions. There is no question from Lelio; the reason for their hostility is a lack of understanding. Marina’s gender is frequently mistaken – often deliberately – and she is dismissed and mistreated while derided as a ‘fag’. Through these attacks on her person, Lelio asks us a sad question; what must it be like to have the right to grieve taken away from you?
That is ostensibly what happens here. Marina is not welcome at the funeral, and the family press her to make arrangements and vacate Orlando’s flat, refusing to acknowledge the relationship that existed between them. The authorities fare just as badly. Assuming Marina is the subject of mistreatment, they insist that she strip for photos, seemingly to fulfill their own curiosity as much as out of any genuine concern.
At one point, Marina’s presence causes such agitation to the family that she is abducted off of the streets and bundled into a car where tape is bound around her face, contorting her features. Later that same evening she seeks solace at a nightclub; lasers criss-cross her face, echoing the earlier abuse like the spirits of a trauma.
While others might view her as a monster, Marina is resolute in her rejection of the idea, though not passive to such attacks. Lelio follows her from start to finish. We see her shaken and we see her empowered by her own righteousness. Such a piercing gaze means that the characters around her remain somewhat underdeveloped, and Orlando’s family run close to seeming like one-dimensional provocateurs to suit the film’s purpose, but Vega’s layered and charismatic performance waylays such concerns, for the most part. The camera loves her, whether she is the focal point of a fantasy dance number, or destitute in the rain (extremes that are collided in the split-second of a cut).
The aforementioned fantasy sequence is joined by frequent visitations from Orlando; an apparition cast into the world from within Marina. As such the tone of A Fantastic Woman bares comparison to Alan Ball’s HBO drama series Six Feet Under, which dabbled in waking dreams and the talking dead, but always with the caveat that these were interior fantasies and not supernatural dalliances. The remainder of the time Lelio keeps things cool and clean. His scenes and settings are neat and orderly, colourful and crisp.
So it’s a character piece and an unhurried one at that. Attune yourself to its leisurely investigation and you’ll have a fine time. Captivating as Vera may be there is, at times, very little else to latch onto here. This is all right in the moment. Just existing within the film is a pleasure; it affords ample opportunities to walk in a specific pair of heels rarely worn on screen. Indeed, as it settles, the value of A Fantastic Woman increases. The trick will be acknowledging that this is but one example and not the end of this conversation.