A Fantastic Woman won the Oscar for Foreign Language film earlier this month. The award is usually reserved for either a complex art film from an acknowledged auteur or a more conventional film that deals with a subject with which Academy voters can readily identify. A Fantastic Woman leans towards the latter in terms of its narrative. The voting seems to reflect a change in the constituency of Academy voters, so that a film focusing on a transgender woman receives support in the same way that a film about a gay African-American boy growing to be a man won Best Picture in 2017. Having said that, the director of A Fantastic Woman, Sebastián Lelio, had already won recognition for his earlier film Gloria in 2013 which was nominated and won prizes at many international film festivals. He also invests his new film with melodrama symbolism that wouldn’t appear in a mainstream film. I make these observations because when a film makes a splash in the global market place like A Fantastic Woman it becomes subject to a different range of critics and reviewers as well as general audiences and I’ve noted a few odd reactions in this case.
I saw A Fantastic Woman in a preview screening a couple of weeks before its UK release. I deliberately avoided reading about the film before the screening. All I knew was that the woman of the title was transgender. I was then surprised that the film screening was preceded by the director introducing his film direct to camera. The screening was in Picturehouses’ ‘Discover Tuesdays’ slot so I wondered if this was a satellite transmission to Picturehouses cinemas around the country (the sound levels were very high). If so, I was bemused to discover that A Fantastic Woman was distributed in the UK by Picturehouses’ rival Curzon Artificial Eye. Anyway, I tried to ignore the director’s statement because I wanted to experience the film ‘cold’. My cool response soon warmed up. As the star of the film, Daniela Vega is indeed ‘fantastic’.
I enjoyed the film very much. I haven’t seen many of the growing number of recent films that feature transgender characters and I’m not particularly aware of transgender issues, so my response to the film is mainly based on my reaction to the prejudice displayed towards Marina and the character’s strength and determination to live her life. I’ve seen some criticism that the prejudice seems to be simply ‘too much’. Would people really act like that? But perhaps this view doesn’t take into account the situation in Chile?
The narrative structure of the film is straightforward. We watch a couple – a younger woman and an older man – out for a celebration of the woman’s birthday. They return home and make love but early in the morning the man becomes unwell and then dies in hospital. When the woman brings her lover to the hospital she is treated with suspicion – the hospital won’t accept her name, ‘Marina’, because it must be her nickname, not her ‘real’ name. What follows are a series of humiliations for a woman who has just experienced the death of her lover. From here on in, the narrative follows the logic of a neorealist film. Marina is barred by her lover’s family from attending his funeral and his cremation. She must try to assert her right to be there and to physically make her presence felt. That’s the story, with a coda when we discover how she acts once the cremation has taken place.
The level of distrust of Marina (is she a gold-digger?) added to the prejudice of ignorance about her sexual identity might seem excessive but Chile appears to be a country with a great contradiction at the centre of its modern society. The legacy of the Pinochet years of fascist repression lingers in a country which also seems visibly caught between the sparkling new modern architecture of parts of Santiago (where the film is set) and other parts of the same city which represent earlier times. Marina is a ‘new woman’ faced with her lover’s family who reveal the prejudices of a traditional society with young men who display machismo and Orlando’s ex-wife who displays her class hatred for Marina (which is arguably misplaced anyway). Not everyone in Orlando’s family is so aggressively anti but the vitriol and violence of the younger males is the most disturbing element. Outside the family, it is the response of hospital and police staff (‘following orders’) that most invokes the Pinochet years. I won’t spoil the narrative further, but there are conscious humiliations designed to unsettle and throw into doubt personal identity.
Sebastián Lelio presents Marina’s story as a melodrama, which is fine by me, but risks alienating some modern audiences. He himself declares that
” . . . It’s a romance film, a ghost film, a fantasy film, a film about humiliation and revenge, a document of reality, a character study (from the Sony Classics Press Notes).
It is all of these, but its presentation is via melodrama. The film uses music carefully and its score is by the British electronic music composer Matthew Herbert (see this webpage to listen to the main title). Marina herself is a singer, training to sing operatic arias such as Handel’s ‘Ombra mai fu’ from his 1738 opera Xerxes. It was written for a castrato but I’m not sure how to classify Daniela Vega’s voice in the film’s version of her performance – it is presumably some form of soprano voice? There are several fantasy sequences but the most obvious melodrama symbolism is in the repeated ‘mirror shots’, some of which are very inventive. The mirror image, especially when Marina looks into the mirror and sees her ‘split’ identity.
Daniela Vega, who ‘transitioned’ when she was an older teenager, was originally approached as a transgender ‘consultant’ for the film’s production before taking up the role of the central character. I’m so glad she got the chance to perform in this role which I suspect will go down as a highly significant role in global cinema. Go and see the film – you won’t be disappointed. And if you don’t have a tear in your eye when the scene below plays out, I’ll be very surprised:
If you need any more persuading, here’s the official trailer: