Wednesday 16 August 2017

Melbourne International Film Festival (2) - Peter Hourigan reviews A FANTASTIC WOMAN (Sebastián Lelio, Chile, 2017)

It’s impossible to write about this without discussing an important element that I was glad that I did not know beforehand.
A person is lying on a sun couch.  Just a pair of shorts. Something whets your curiosity. Is it a young man? Or are those very small breasts falling to the ribs, so they almost disappear?

Next, we meet an older man, about 50 at a sauna. When he leaves, we see him entering a night club. 
And we hear a singer. But what voice is that? Male or female?  When we do see the singer, we relax that part of our curiosity a bit – it’s a woman, though with a somewhat masculine voice.

These opening moments, stimulate our curiosity about the person who will be our protagonist – the fantastic woman of the title. And here it is a case where the word ‘fantastic’ is much closer to its real meaning than it is usually.

For Marina is a person who herself is curious about her identity.  Bluntly, she’s “trans”.  But Lelio’s film is surely about just how inadequate terse labels are for pigeon-holing a person.  Our prurience wants to know how far she has transitioned, and we do see her body from the waist up during the film.  There’s no beard shadow evident, but her breasts are not very developed at all. We don’t see below the waist – but that it itself is a rebuff to our voyeurism. We don’t need to know. Whatever stage she is in transitioning, is irrelevant to her sense of identity.  She is clear that she is Marina. And she is strong in that self-awareness.

The man we met at the sauna is her partner and lover, a much older man who has left his marriage. He suddenly dies after a celebration for his birthday, and Marina the lover and partner is thrown into the chaos of families and officialdom. 

There is an ex-wife who takes over the funeral and freezes Marina out.  We don’t know when Orlando and Marina became lovers, but it must have been quite some  long time, long enough for Sonia to divorce him.  And it is a beautiful, warm and enduring relationship we see celebrating Orlando’s birthday.  He would not have wanted ll the things that happen to Marina because of his death.  He wanted her to share a trip to Iguazu Falls with him.

Sebastián Lelio  is best known here for Gloria (2013), including the same co-writer and cinematographer. But there is a cooler, more restrained feel here, perhaps because Marina herself is more restrained in her interactions with people than the more exuberant Gloria.

'...use of mirrors...', The Fantastic Woman
The use of mirrors in films can be a cliché, but not here.  Marina’s interrogation of her identity is always startled by the world around her, by the response to her of other people, by clothes, and by mirrors. At one moment, she’s crossing a small plaza in front of a modern building, as two workers are delivering a very large mirror. It catches her image, but it wobbles, is unstable as the glass flexes in its transit of the plaza – and then image and mirror vanish.

Crucial is the performance of Daniela Vega as Marina. Some sources list this as her debut, others refer to an earlier credit. Whatever, in A Fantastic Woman she has the responsibility of sustaining the whole film.  Perhaps only a real trans woman could have done this, but to find one with such consummate acting ability is indeed an essential factor in the conviction and power of this fantastic film from Sebastián Lelio .

Daniela Vega (Marina), A Fantastic Woman

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