A Fantastic Woman / Una Mujer Fantástica (2017)

An updated version of this post is now available on the Curzon blog. You can also listen to a discussion of the film on the Curzon podcast between Irene MusumeciJake Cunningham, and yours truly.

Winner of the 2017 Silver Bear for Best Screenplay in Berlin, writer-director Sebastián Lelio’s latest feature tells the story of a transgender woman who, following her partner’s death, is deprived of her right to grieve for her loss. This arthouse gem’s production team includes names as important as Pablo Larraín (Neruda) and Maren Ade (Toni Erdmann). Sexy and unapologetic, A Fantastic Woman will be representing Chile at the 2018 Academy Awards.

 

Review

A Fantastic Woman is a mesmerising bit of filmmaking set in present-day Chile. The mise en scène and Benjamín Echazarreta’s camera work are often reminiscent of Lynch, while the narrative structure borrows something from Hitchcock. There is a sense of something thrilling and mysterious driving the story forward, with hints of magical realism present throughout the film. The lighting and the film’s colour palette further accentuate its unique, dream-like flavour. The screenplay, written by Sebastián Lelio and Gonzalo Maza, is easily one of the best of 2017, with dialogue that is never superfluous, and always on point. Not a single line delivered goes to waste in this film.  Daniela Vega’s character, Marina, is both well-written and brilliantly enacted: tranquil on the surface, but a fire within. The lead actress’s musical talent adds a special note to her character’s background. The film may not be overtly political or in-your-face when it comes to supporting queer rights, but it’s certainly defiant of the status quo in its own subtle ways. Strong, resilient, and ever so human, Vega’s powerful breakthrough performance could make her the first transgender woman to be nominated for an Oscar; and I can’t begin to imagine what that must mean to the trans community. With trans representation that is as respectful as it is empowering, A Fantastic Woman takes a long-awaited, steady step forward for human rights. While not as witty as an Almodrama with the same story might have been, the film is truly a fantastic piece of arthouse cinema.

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A spoiler-free summary

The opening sequence takes a long look at some very picturesque, yet initially enigmatic, waterfalls. As the story kicks off with Marina’s birthday celebration, there is a mention of two misplaced getaway tickets to the Falls of Iguazú. The celebration is followed by the sudden death of Marina’s partner Orlando (Francisco Reyes) after they spend the night together. Marina (Daniela Vega) hardly has the chance to take in what has happened before the hospital staff and police become suspicious of her, and start questioning her. If the discrimination she faces during the ensuing investigation is questionable, society’s ignorance, prejudice and, often, hate are a certainty. Following Orlando’s death, Marina has to fight for her basic rights, her home and even the custody of her dog. Her relationship and cohabitation with Orlando mean little to the law, and much less to Orlando’s family, who even deny her the right to attend his funeral. With the tickets to Iguazú missing, the prospect of even a temporary escape seems long gone. Marina’s last remaining link to Orlando is a mysterious key: but what does it unlock?

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Reflections on the film | Reflections in the film

Let’s start from the use of mirrors. Lacan would be pleased. Mirrors appear in A Fantastic Woman again and again, really emphasising that this is a film about identity. Here are three instances that I feel are particularly worth mentioning:

  1. After being turned away at Orlando’s funeral, Marina is harassed by members of his family (his son included). They take her into their car by force, tie her arms behind her back and wrap her head in tape. After Marina is ditched in an alley, the camera focuses on the image that she sees, in the window of a parked vehicle. In her disfigured face, tape all over it, we almost see a glimpse of the monster those men see in her—only it’s their monstrosity that the glass really reflects.
  2. While Marina is walking on the streets, at one point, she stands to see her reflection in a giant mirror that some workers are transporting. The fact that they’re holding the mirror gives the scene an interesting touch: what we see in ourselves is very often what others want us to see.
  3. In a very subtle (yet thought-provoking) scene,  Marina is alone in her apartment, lying naked on her bed, and looking straight into a mirror. This time she‘s holding the mirror: and  it is her own perception of self that is emphasised. What I find exceptional about this scene is that she’s holding the mirror exactly over her genitalia. Whether they are ‘male’ or ‘female’, we are never specifically told as viewers. It is mind-blowing how powerful this scene is: Marina’s sexual identity becomes something that transcends gender altogether, and it is something that she alone should be free to define. We don’t need to know what lies behind that mirror to respect her as a human being.

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A scene that serves as a nice juxtaposition, complementary to the one with the mirror on Marina’s crotch, is the one where she has to strip naked at the hospital. When she exposes her genitalia, again, we are not shown anything, but the doctor’s face cannot conceal a hint of shock, and we can almost feel the shame painted on Marina’s face. The female police officer and male doctor inconsiderately discuss the issue of not knowing what pronouns to use in Marina’s presence, and in that instance she is under scrutiny by both (binary) genders. Her gaze almost feels trapped in the frame as she undresses, with the invasive looks that she’s getting from both them and us, as voyeurs of a sort, curious (to some extent) to see what her body really looks like.

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A fantastic screenplay

What was most striking about the writing was the dialogue. Marina’s strength of character is always highlighted by those few honest words she says in reply to people’s ignorance and insults. Despite the police’s disbelief about the nature of her relationship with Orlando, Marina reminds them (as well as us) that whatever they had deserves to be respected, having been ‘a consensual relationship between two adults’.  When Orlando’s son, disgusted, asks ‘What are you?’, her reply echoes beautifully in all its simplicity: ‘Flesh and bone. I’m the same as you’. Is Orlando’s wife allowed to be bitter about her husband falling in love with another woman? Absolutely. But her insults towards Marina are all misdirected and bigoted: ‘It’s just perversion’, she tells her. ‘I look at you and I see a chimera… I’m sorry’, she says, but she isn’t really. ‘What are you sorry about?’, Marina calmly retorts, and I can feel a lump in my throat. ‘You’re normal, ma’m’. And she’s right: bigotry and social hypocrisy are still so often considered normal, and yet people deciding how they want to live their own lives, respectful of others, is not.

Something else I really appreciate about the script is that it never really tries to make us feel sorry for Marina. Even when she becomes a victim of violence, both verbal and physical, she never cries. The one and only time she allows herself to cry is near the very end, when she finally gets her chance to say goodbye to her loved one alone, away from people’s judging eyes.

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Symbols and magical realism

The fact that it’s her partner’s ‘ghost’ that leads her to his body is one of the primary surreal touches in the film. A nice use of symbolism in the film comes in the form of Marina fighting against the elements. This could be interpreted as Marina’s battle against what is conventionally seen as ‘natural’, as she fights for the right to be what feels natural to her. A very iconic example of this, crossing the line between symbolism and magical realism, is when she’s seen literally pushing against the wind to make her way forward. Her struggle against the elements could also be read as a fight against the ceaseless tides of life. This idea is well captured by another scene, in which Marina makes the occasional air punch while standing in front of the waves depicted on her wall.

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Apparent influences

Whether knowingly or not, the film pays tribute to a number of important auteurs. Hitchcock’s presence can be felt in the way the plot unfolds through a series of coincidences; and in the way one of the plot devices that seem most relevant to the story ends up having little to do with anything. Marina finds the key to locker 181 by coincidence. She has no idea what lock it fits, but we get the feeling that she’s secretly hoping it’ll lead her to those tickets; her escape from the reality she has to face. Again by sheer coincidence, a man that visits the restaurant she works at gives her a vital clue about the key. The moment when she discovers that empty locker feels a bit like that moment in Psycho, where all the stolen money is drowned in the water: we think the film is all about that money, but then discover we’re completely wrong.

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The colours, the neon lights, the living guided by the dead through visions: those all feel like Lynch to me. Not to mention those waterfalls at the very start—in hindsight, they have ‘Twin Peaks’ written all over them. And there’s also that very ‘Mulholland Drive/ Elephant Man’ moment between dream and reality, when locker 181 is finally opened: the camera heads straight into the darkness, emerging to find that what the protagonist has unlocked is not merely an empty container, but a new way of perceiving their reality. The Iguazú tickets are not in the locker, because that’s not how life works. Marina is not given anything in exchange for enduring her hardships. She is firmly grounded to reality in a sequence straight out of a dream, and that’s a pretty powerful antithesis. From then on, she has no false hopes of escaping; just a determination to move forward in life and get things done.

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Lastly, there is a faint hint of Haneke in that scene where Marina is at the car wash, and she suddenly has a vision of Orlando sitting in the back seat. Those waterfalls from the beginning also kind of make me think of that poster with the Australian beach in The Seventh Continent: both landscapes embody the respective protagonists’ yearning to escape reality.

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Q&A at the London Film Festival

This may come  as a huge surprise, but the film was not initially going to be about a transgender woman at all. During a Q&A on 10 October 2017, screenwriter Gonzalo Maza revealed that this was something that was discussed after the casting process had started. The script was still about a woman dealing with the loss of her (older) partner, but the transgender element was added only after Daniela Vega auditioned for the role. The team was so impressed with her skills and her singing, that they decided to rewrite parts of the story just for her. During her audition, the creatives realised that there was very little they actually knew about the trans community; and Daniela was very open when it came to discussing the subject.

The more universal question that the film asks is: ‘What is the heritage you get from the people you love?’. And then ‘it’s also a film about identity, like all Hitchcock films. We are big fans of Hitchcock’, Maza confessed. He also revealed that Marina’s singing voice is actually Daniela’s own voice. Interestingly, the Handel aria that she sings at the very end of the film, Ombra mai fu, was originally composed to be sung by a soprano castrato (a castrated male). Whether this choice was intentional or not is unknown, but it is certainly a fitting choice for the film at hand.

The screenwriter commented: ‘The film was received surprisingly well in Chile. People’s reactions to it mainly focused on two things: one was praise for Daniela’s talent; the other was the realisation that people really have no idea about the issues that the transgender community is faced with.’

Let’s hope that A Fantastic Woman will not be the last film to raise awareness about these important issues. Although LGBTQ representation in film has improved considerably in recent years, with features such as Carol and Moonlight getting the mainstream visibility they deserve, it still remains to be seen whether a film can centre on  a queer protagonist whose story is not one of repressed feelings, hardship or the pain of thwarted love.

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