Thanks to Sony Pictures we had the chance to see Sebastian Lelio’s, A Fantastic Woman before its official cinematic release. This is our review of the movie, but as usual, no matter what we say, we still recommend you to go and see it at your local cinema because there is no better critic than yourself!
It’s hard to decipher what Leilo is trying to imply with the title of his latest film, the Oscar nominated A Fantastic Woman. It sounds like a low-rent version of Wonder Woman, but through the course of the film the irony and accuracy of the title becomes patently clear.
It starts in a small Chilean club with protagonist Marina (Daniela Vega), part-time waitress and cabaret act, singing about a love gone wrong. Her attention is fixed on a handsome older gentleman, Orlando (Francisco Reyes), to the side of the stage who longingly sips his drink while the two exchanges glances and a wink. The sexual chemistry is palpable. So much so, that the audience can focus on nothing but the two characters. Even the song that Marina is singing, which is a comical tale of a love lost, fades into the background and the whole world seems to be about these two people.
The two are celebrating Marina’s birthday drinking, dancing, drinking and then retiring to a hotel room to make love. In the middle of the night, Orlando awakes short of breath and unsure of what is wrong with him. Marina carries him to the hallway when he falls down the stairs. They rush to the hospital but he dies shortly after from an aneurysm.
So far, no sign of the fantastic woman the title alludes to, but Lelio has expertly constructed this beginning to lull the audience into a false sense of the ordinary about the relationship. Passionate…but ordinary.
It’s only when the obviously distressed Marina is questioned strangely by the attending doctor and told to leave the hospital by a family member for fear of inflicting a scandal around the death of Orlando, that we get a glimpse of the untoward about their relationship.
When being questioned by the police, it’s established that Marina’s name on her ID is Daniel and that she is trans, and quickly becomes the focus of an investigation into the death of Orlando due to the perceived irregular nature of their relationship.
All Marina wants to do is escape the situation and be alone in her grief. She’s stoic and silent, getting on with her work as best she can under the enormity of her grief. You get the feeling that she’s used to heartbreak and scrutiny.
But escape is not something the family or police are willing to let her do.
A female police officer visits her work under the pretence of being ‘concerned’ for Marina, trying to establish if Orlando was violent with her and referencing her experience with trans prostitutes as if that is the only relationship between the two she can fathom the pair having. But her sympathy is short lived and she forces Marina to undertake a degrading physical examination. The manner in which this is conducted, is more like perverse curiosity – as if Marina was act in a Barnaby circus to be gawped at and the doctor preforming it, an eager child gazing upon a monstrosity.
This is nothing in comparison to what she endures with the family. Orlando’s son let’s himself into the apartment they shared, and chokes Marina – threatening to evict her physically and sexually from the apartment if she does not leave of her own accord. Marina fights back but she’s clearly unnerved by the incident and is angered when the son takes her dog – a present from Orlando.
Despite this Marina goes to see Orlando’s ex-wife Sonia (Aline Küppenheim), aware of the impact her relationship has on this woman, she does so with a sympathetic, tender nature. Sonia on the other hand, takes the opportunity to liken their relationship to ‘perversion’ and forbids her from attending the funeral – effectively denying her human right to mourn the one that she loved.
This is the final straw for Marina, and she attends the mourning service of Orlando only to be kidnapped by the family, including Orlando’s son. Her face is wrapped in cello tape disfiguring it and she’s discarded in an area that is frequented by trans prostitutes. For the first time, we see her question herself, falling fowl to the belief that maybe the family is right. She degrades herself with a stranger but when she sees visions of Orlando, she becomes fantastically transformed in a dream sequence complete with technicoloured dream coat – a return to the fantastic woman that Orlando fell in love with.
Whilst victimisation is a common thread throughout the film, Marina is never a victim – her strength and resolve can only be described as fantastic, a relic of the trauma endured throughout her life. Her strength in the face of adversity has made her who she is, and is something that no one can take from her.
Reinvigorated and defiant, she attends the funeral and secures the return of what is rightfully hers giving her some semblance of peace, both for Marina and the audience.
A Fantastic Woman is a story about one’s identity and it’s perception by others. The victimisation within, is brought to life by the experience of real life trans actor, Daiela Vega who plays Marina and is a damning portrayal of Chile’s acceptance of trans people. The director acknowledges that he was inspired by many of Daniela’s own feelings and stories, working them into the script after having met her. Perhaps it’s this experience that allows Vega to be so magnificent in the role.
Where the film falls down in a sense, is that it is too short – not something that can be said about most modern films. It only scratches the surface of the identity of Marina, and the resolution that the audience hopes will come for her does so too swiftly, without explanation or further examination. Hopefully, when the time comes, a directors cut is made available, that goes further into establishing the character of Marina and the circumstances of her life – that, would be truly fantastic.
A Fantastic Woman – In cinemas February 22