Reviewed by GREG KING
Director: Sebastian Lelio
Stars: Daniela Vega, Francisco Reyes, Amparo Noguera, Aline Kuppenheim, Luis Gnecco, Nicholas Saavedro.
Chilean director Sebastian Lelio makes films that deal with strong female characters who struggle against a patriarchal society. His previous film Gloria offered up a sympathetic and honest portrait of a middle-aged woman looking for love and fulfillment in contemporary Santiago, and he handled the material with a sense of compassion and respect. Those same qualities are evident in his fifth feature film, A Fantastic Woman, which is Chile’s official entry for the Best Foreign Language Oscar. This is also arguably a more accessible film in this category than the highly fancied but frustrating The Square.
The fantastic woman of the title is Marina Vidal (played by newcomer Daniela Vega), who initially seems a graceful, elegant and confident young woman. She works as a waitress by day and as a sultry cabaret singer in a seedy nightclub at night. She attracts the attention of middle-aged businessman Orlando (Francisco Reyes, from Neruda, etc), who is 20 years her senior. She becomes his mistress. Then one night following her birthday celebrations, Orlando suddenly collapses from an aneurism and dies, and he world is turned upside down.
At the hospital Marina finds herself questioned by the doctors and the police, who are curious about her involvement in Orlando’s death. She is treated poorly, and is further humiliated by the doctors and a police inspector (Amparo Noguera) when she is forced to undress and reveals that she is transgender. The medical staff address her by her birth name, Daniel. But even worse is the treatment she receives from Orlando’s bigoted family, who try to erase any trace of her from his life. They treat her with disdain and contempt and even forbid her from attending his funeral. But despite her poor treatment she never backs down in the face of their hostility and retains her dignity and pride and refuses to be a victim.
The whole film hinges around Marina, who is a strong and complex character. Fittingly, the transgender Vega dominates the screen from the outset, and she is a revelation. She has a natural screen presence and brings a wonderful mix of sadness, vulnerability and poise and strength to her performance. This is a breakout performance from Vega, whose androgynous figure is perfect, and she brings a rare truth and integrity to the character’s emotional journey. She was initially hired to work as a consultant on the film’s milieu, but she so impressed Lelio that he eventually cast her in the lead role.
Cowritten by Lelio and his regular collaborator Gonzalo Marza, A Fantastic Woman draws on Vega’s own experiences to help shape the screenplay. The film deals with themes of love, grief, marginalisation, sexual identity, tolerance, prejudice, status and social class, resilience, and even homophobia. It is rare to see positive depictions and representations of transgender characters on screen we have the tv series Transparent, Oscar winner Eddie Redmayne in The Danish Girl, and a couple of years ago we had Sean Baker’s low budget drama Tangerine, which looked at a group of transgender prostitutes in Los Angeles. It is also ground breaking to see a transgender actor play a transgender character on the screen.
Lelio’s direction of this delicate subject matter is sensitive, measured and the pacing leisurely, and we get plenty of time to know and understand Marina and her struggles for acceptance. There are some surreal touches late in the film that unbalance the drama. The film has been atmospherically shot by cinematographer Benjamin Echazarreta (Gloria, etc), who captures some scenery of the Santiago setting. While an important film in some aspects, A Fantastic Woman is not a film that will hold broad appeal to mainstream audiences.