Film Review: A FANTASTIC WOMAN (2017)
Directed By: Sebastián Lelio
Review By: Belle McIntyre
Daniela Vega, the transgender actor who plays Marina Vidal, the woman of the title, is definitely a fantastic woman. She has the quiet intensity of Isabel Huppert and is mesmerizingly watchable. She rarely smiles or uses her body overtly, yet she conveys multitudes of inner feelings and knowingness with the intensity of her gaze. Her own experience, no doubt informs her performance of her character. What is most strikingly conveyed is the sense of isolation which her situation has imposed on her. The environment in which she lives in (Santiago, Chile) is fundamentally hostile toward people like Marina.
Marina works as a waitress and sings in a cabaret. We meet her singing a very “throw down” song about an ex-lover as yesterday’s news. But she is not a flamboyant figure, dressing in a very unflashy manner. She generally keeps a low profile and her friends at work seem to know little about her personal life. She is involved in a loving and fulfilling relationship with an older and wealthier man, Orlando (Francisco Reyes), with whom she lives. Her life begins to unravel when he suffers an aneurysm and dies shortly after she gets him to the hospital. Beginning with the hospital staff who treat her with suspicion , which only further escalates after meeting with Orlando’s family who have known about her but have never met her. They find the fact of her incomprehensible and are appallingly rude and hostile toward her even though she is initially extremely polite and deferential toward them. That does not last, however.
Except for Orlando’s brother Gabo (Luis Gnecco), who shows her respect and kindness, Sonia (Aline Küppenheim), Orlando’s ex-wife, and Bruno (Nicolás Saavedra), Orlando’s boorish and mean-spirited son, treat her as a freak and a non-person and deny her the right to participate in any of the funeral proceedings. As insults mount on top of injury, Marina’s controlled exterior begins to crack and there is a wonderful scene where she completely loses it and jumps on the roof of the car when Bruno refuses to let her have their dog, Diabla. The relentlessness of her bad treatment is only relieved by a relationship she has with her singing teacher, who is kind. He is mentoring her as a classical singer. This is an underdeveloped part of the story, which only comes at the end and feels a little awkward. It, does, however, allow for the seemingly redemptive last scene of Marina reclaiming her life and her art. That this final plot twist occurs seemingly out of nowhere implies an excess of editing or underwriting, and it seems like a flaw of the film, but not of the story.
Nonetheless, the performance of Daniela Vega and the sensitive portrayal of this woman puts Sebastián high on any list of directors who have the talent and humanity to appreciate women as complex and worthy subjects. His last film, Gloria, was a wonderful portrait of a middle aged divorcee who decides to let loose, let down her guard and seize her right to have a fulfilling life on her own terms. It was also realistically and intelligently rendered. Both films have enough lightness, humor and wit to make stories which could be viewed as downbeat entertaining and insightful, without a whiff of condescension. And he has created two unforgettable, very real and appealing female characters, who will linger in the mind and provoke further thought. I call that success.