A Fantastic Woman : A Film Review

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A Fantastic Woman

Directed by Sebastián Lelio and written by Lelio and Gonzalo Maza, Produced by Juan de Dios Larraín,

Pablo Larraín, Sebastián Lelio, Gonzalo Maza.

Cast: Daniela Vega as Marina Vidal, Francisco Reyes as Orlando, Luis Gnecco as Gabo, Aline Küppenheim as Sonia, Amparo Noguera as Antonia, Nicolás Saavedra as Bruno, Antonia Zegers as Alessandra, Trinidad González as Wanda, Néstor Cantillana as Gastón, Alejandro Goic as Doctor.

Music by Matthew Herbert. Cinematography Benjamín Echazarreta. Edited by Soledad Salfate. Production company Fabula, Komplizen. Film Distributed by Sony Pictures Classics. Duration 1hr 44mins. Country Chile. Language Spanish.

It is the first Chilean foreign language entry Oscar since Pablo Larraín’s No, and the first ever Academy award for Lelio, in this follow-up to the highly rated Gloria.

Daniela Vega plays Marina Vidal, her lover is Orlando (Francisco Reyes).

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General synopsis

Marina and Orlando are in love and planning for the future. Marina is a young waitress and aspiring singer. Orlando is 30 years older than her, and owns a textile company. They celebrate Marina’s birthday one evening, Orlando falls seriously ill. Marina rushes him to the emergency room, but he passes away just after arriving at the hospital. Instead of being able to mourn her lover, suddenly Marina is treated with suspicion. The doctors and Orlando’s family don’t trust her. Marina is a trans woman and for most of Orlando’s family, her gender identity is an aberration, a perversion. So Marina struggles for the right to be herself. She battles the very same forces that she has spent a lifetime fighting just to become what she is now – a complex, strong, forthright and fantastic woman.

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Gender fluidity

Gender fluidity is a subject no longer hidden or made unreal. It is a feature of human beings often misunderstood or not seen clearly. There is no such ambiguity in the portrayal of Marina who is played by Daniela Vega as A Fantastic Woman. She has become transgender and is sharing a relationship with Orlando played by Francisco Reyes, a well off textile company owner whose love for Marina is unqualified. Orlando is a fifty seven year old and Marina an unspoken twenty eight year old or thereabouts. They share an apartment with a docile Alsatian dog called Diabla. It begins after a scene of fluidity in a wide opening shot of one of the wonders of the world Iguaçu Falls, formerly Victoria Falls on the Iguassú River, on the boundary between Brazil and Argentina. This film is set in Chile’s capital Santiago where the city life is international and commercial. Opening with Orlando in a male sauna with its steam and busy masseurs pummelling backs and muscles, his thoughts are on Marina and the gift he has prepared for her birthday.

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Simple choreography

Scenes are choreographed almost as rigid set pieces as the story is without any complexity other than the elements and range of emotional responses each conveys. First contact is through their eyes meeting in a club where Daniela Vega who plays Marina Vidal, is a singer and she sings “Your love is like yesterday’s newspaper” while fixing her gaze on her lover Orlando as the love story is revealed. From this introduction they enter a luxury restaurant to celebrate Marina’s birthday and the night continues with them dancing at another club and after to the apartment and a love scene.

What happens is a life changing moment. Orlando suffers a stroke which in a very short time kills him. It sets in train a whole accompaniment of conflicts and dramatic arrangements which involve the families with to a greater degree, Orlando’s family which includes a wife, child and several brothers and extended family. There is a funeral to be arranged and public persona to be kept in this still conservative society.

Marina is with Orlando throughout his last moments except when they are separated in the Hospital Emergency Rooms. The choreography is taken very thoroughly through roles and expectations with the arrival of an older brother, Gabo or Gabriel played by Luis Gnecco, who is aware of the relationship and knowingly accepting of Marina’s depth of love and loss. He asks the authorities to pull back on certain intrusive investigations but there are a sequence of very invasive examinations and a part in this is played by a Medical Officer specialising in gender relations and sexual crimes. The medical officer, Adrienne Cordez establishes quickly that no non consensual criminal acts took place and is does not suspect any abnormal events to have taken place. She is conscious through her own history and long experience of what is going through the mind of Marina when these assaults on grieving and adjusting are taking place. Memory is prominent in Marina’s mind.

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Barriers

The way Marina takes control of the situation is by keeping quiet and not reacting by showing her frustrations and she has to keep down a job as a waitress at the splendidly carnivalesque fun-fair themed restaurant she works at. Marina’s understanding boss is a savvy woman who does not interfere when she becomes aware something has happened as she witnesses a detachment and less ‘gay’ employee. The way the film builds is around these relationships and the comparisons of alternatives in acceptance of Marina for what she is. It is hard always for Marina to be stoic and strong in this grief and it is clear it brings in the prejudices and heightens them in this modern but conservative setting.

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There are a series of rebuttals and Marina is faced down by several entities. By showing outward calm this is a way of dealing with the loss of Orlando. His spikey son Bruno (Nicolás Saavedra),turns up at the flat unannounced and reads the riot act, insists in calling her by another name, and stakes a claim to being the bigot of the piece. Others line up throughout to wrest the claim of bigoted and homophobia embittered lives stalk the city. Dignity is a sword Marina draws on constantly as she weaves her way through the arrangements which are not as she was prepared for and which are detaching themselves from her despite her efforts.

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Appearances

Difficult as it may be to put oneself in her shoes. High heels are her mode of walking transport. The outward appearance is precious and a barrier to naysayers and bigots. Transgender life is seen to be a battleground in which the feminine genes are contested by male and female protagonists with crudeness and superficiality. The place of subtlety is oblique. Rendering first a barrier and a convention which for the most part is seldom questioned in everyday situations with Marina’s non-androgynous feminine movement and composure. They simply are to be navigated but always there is an anxiety present for the viewer, hoping it carries at every point and seeing negative aspects arise. The quest for normalcy is shared across the screen. No Culpa, negligence or guilt is worn by Marina.

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That Spanish word is latinesque in its casting back to ancient sexual diversity and ‘queer’ practice. An improperia of Catholic censure is evident in this Chilean society. Unbraided intemerate live’s are expected where in reality the worst of things exist and pervade and menace society entirely separated and detached from sexuality and it’s nature. The culpa is seen as self-reproach, avoided by Marina in the most part while in a relationship but now it begins to challenge. The challenge which may have existed earlier when the realisation occurred is revisited. Some of this self-reproachment is delivered in visual questioning, the persecution is real in an event which goes to the depths of hatred without going to extremis. Unatoned parallels are present in this revised world for Marina and happiness will it seems, once again be hard to achieve.

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Fortitude and strength

The strengths of the film are in its simplicity and its strong story of a struggle by Marina as a young transgender person in a highly conservative nation trying to achieve their right to happiness and be comfortable and making a life with purpose and meaning unfold as God intended. This is achieved by the continuity of the narrative unfolding. There is a beautiful choreographed set of relationships or scenes of encounter constructed through the film. A relationship which neither would have chosen to have is that between Orlando’s ex-wife, Sonia (Aline Küppenheim) and Marina. It features heavily in the centre of the story and it causes a bit of drag which is one of the films few drawbacks. The middle is slightly larger than is necessary and some tender moments would have had better preference in my viewing of it. The sideline characters are one dimensional although the sides of Sonia are sympathetic in deference to her own dilemma in part giving an alternative perspective. In some passages the hyper anxiety of Marina comes out in hallucinatory experiences. When she is trying to escape the present by going to seedier but safe clubs she is confronted by the overseeing memory. Late on a new dimension of Marina is shown in its full glory with her attending an elderly tutor whose own love for Marina is not hidden surfaces. This aspect of the film is glorious in its modest framing and brings in a major lift and ultimately cathartic moment which is brilliantly created in a requiem of repose for the soul and living beyond. Director has been saving up some very graceful and harmonic notes for us in releasing the grief in an expansive denouement and finale. The musical score by Matthew Herbert’s and the visually gripping cinematographer Benjamín Echazarreta‘s work which makes use fully of the electric gaze and demeanour of Marina. The sea is an undercurrent of the theme of turbulence as well as perpetual life outside human control as is manifest it seems in the events occurring and how they throw the weaker ones to the rocks.

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Directors note

I see A FANTASTIC WOMAN as a film of aesthetic splendor, narrative vigor, tension and emotion. Polytonal, multi-experiential, multi-emotional. It’s a film that is both a celebration and examination of its main character: Marina Vidal. What will the viewers see when they see Marina? A woman, a man, or the sum of both? They will see a human being who constantly changes before their eyes, who flows, vibrates, and modifies herself. But what they are seeing isn’t precisely what they are seeing, and this condition turns Marina into a vortex that attracts the viewer’s fantasy and desire, inviting them to explore the limits of their own empathy.

-Sebastián Lelio

Conclusion ####4

The sumptuous and well paced delivery of a story of grief and its aftermath is cleverly and sympathetically played out here and no part of the films object is ever seem to be implausible or overarching. It is a delicately handled story of tensions not least of transgender understanding by outsiders of a relationship which is loving and cherished. The imbalances of wealth, position, status, are seen as barriers which Marina and Orlando have made a pact with. Orlando’s private life and public life are kept separate except from trusted few and also through the break up of Orlando’s marriage. There is an immediate warmth to the film in its beginning and a few red herrings including almost key which turns up as a constant issue as well as a grim and unpleasant medical intrusion set a difficult set of circumstances alongside the rather straightforward and argumentative parts of conflicts around the actual funeral and the keeping up of appearances in a bourgeoisie upper class family. For all its predictablity in terms of – oh her comes a confrontation to type – a Doctor, Policeman, Son, Brother – only slight irritation is taken as the transactions are comfortingly disturbing for the expectancy is borne out of prejudice and bigotry which wrangles and causes the tension to build in the viewer against such unfeeling societal urges. The cast delivers an excellent thought filled movie and carry the dynamic and magnetic Daniela Vegas literally transformative part on to a very high level.

There have been other films of late, Loveless, Insyriated (others appear on the list) which count a great deal more in my mind of pioneering work and A Fantastic Woman is Fantastic as another piece of enlightenment and a very good cultural interpretation of a global issue and human gulf of understanding of non binary sexuality and how the manifestations of gender fluidity need better understanding and most of all acceptance and assistance. The achievement of an Academy Award is an immense lift to the profiling of the issues it raises and is well worth the added momentum. The more political films are obviously going to be less able to be lauded in such a commercial arena as Hollywood given its love of money and selling issues back to people via. stories of ‘atonement’ ‘endearment’ ‘unreality’ ‘creature-features’ and fables of many kinds.

John Graham

5 March 2018

Belfast

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