A Fantastic Woman
Edwin Arnaudin: A Fantastic Woman took home the Academy Award for Best Foreign Language Film on Sunday night, a win that seemed to be wrapped up before the ceremony began. Star Daniela Vega was the only person from the five nominated movies tapped as a presenter and none of the other contenders came in with anything one might call “buzz.” Do you feel the Chilean export is a worthy champion?
Bruce Steele: Not having seen the other nominees, I can’t be sure it’s the best, but I can be sure it’s deserving. It’s hard to believe director and co-writer Sebastián Lelio conceived the project about a transgender woman without a performer in mind for the lead and then found trans actress Vega during his research. She really lives up to the title, right?
Edwin: And then some! She has a mesmerizing presence as Marina, who’s likable from the moment she appears onscreen, singing with a band in a Santiago night club. She’s just living her life and in love with Orlando (Francisco Reyes), qualities that make her easy to root for when he suddenly dies, exposing her to disrespect from his family, local authorities and other bigots.
Bruce: I like your phrase “just living her life,” because that’s the attitude of this movie and what I loved most about it. It deals with Marina’s struggles and humiliations as a transwoman, yes, but mostly it’s just “the portrait of a lady,” as Henry James might have said. She’s juggling a day job (waitress), a vocation (singer), a personal tragedy (the death of her life partner) and family and friends (both supportive and vicious). But Lelio doesn’t go for soap opera or “issue movie.” It’s a compelling, adult drama about grief — and it just happens to focus on a transwoman.
Edwin: I agree that Lelio is refreshingly naturalistic and non-preachy with his storytelling, but think the issues Marina faces are specific to transwomen and give A Fantastic Woman its potency. Hardly anyone is willing to accept her for who she is and every insult — grand or casual — stings, whether or not she lets her oppressors see. If she was cisgender, I doubt the film would be nearly as moving nor stand out from other works about grief.
Bruce: I don’t disagree, but if you strip away the unique qualities of any compelling movie character, the associated film falls apart. Marina’s challenges are specific to her and put this movie in its own category, but she’s so much herself, and so movingly portrayed in Vega’s modulated, emotional performance, that she remains an individual throughout. A Fantastic Woman has great and at times disturbing insights into a transwoman’s life, but it’s not Trans Life 101. It bypasses the “revelation” moment and the arc of the plot isn’t dependent on “acceptance” plot points. Everyone is who they are. I especially like that the unlucky Orlando is left alone to love her without reserve and without some tortured back story.
Edwin: Any of the hackneyed turning points you mention likely would have disrupted the film's momentum. I’m with you that the straightforwardness of Marina’s relationships and encounters is one of the key assets here, and it’s consistent with Lelio’s fairly workmanlike direction. When instances of style occur, their creative beauty stand out from the rest of the film and I have a feeling that at least two images will linger in my mind for a while. Did you have a similar experience in that regard?
Bruce: There are some beautifully whimsical moments. If my college Spanish serves, it’s relevant to note that the original title, Una Mujer Fantastica, means not only “a fantastic woman” but also carries connotations of “a woman of fantasy,” or “a fantastical woman,” which the English translation loses. So the movie’s occasional matter-of-fact digressions into the visually surreal are consistent with its conception. More simply, as you point out, they’re just a joy for the viewer. And they’re not the only unexpected turns Lelio makes.
Edwin: I have some guesses as to what you’re alluding, but please continue.
Bruce: In general terms, the storytelling is distinctly different from the American mainstream. Characters’ backgrounds are either opaque or only gradually revealed. Major characters show up nearly halfway through without previous introduction. In specific, I’m referring to some final twists and reveals that are either unexplained or don’t pay off the way American audiences are trained to expect. Part of me wonders, given the blend of fact and the fantastic, whether the ending is intended as narrative truth or subjective aspiration. What do you think?
Edwin: Based on one particular lead-in exchange, I interpreted it more as truth, but it’s a moment of such heightened beauty that it makes me wonder. Lelio blends it and other magical scenes well with the film's painfully realistic ones, which occasionally carry their own escapist touches. I’m mainly thinking of Marina listening to Aretha Franklin’s cover of "(You Make Me Feel Like) A Natural Woman” on the stereo of a car she’s about to relinquish, which made me smile, then about knocked the wind out of me. There’s so much in A Fantastic Woman that works — is there anything that doesn’t?
Bruce: Like a good American moviegoer, I’m tempted to ask for plot and character information that isn’t provided, but I know that’s antithetical to the filmmaking. I think we’re meant to fill in the blanks with our own imaginations. The one flaw I will note — less a flaw than a missed opportunity — is the movie’s and Marina’s general lack of a sense of humor. There’s some levity at the expense of a brother-in-law, and some clever moments may evoke smiles, but this Woman is pretty humorless. It’s heavy stuff, grief and prejudice and rejection, but the movie’s dedication to a slice-of-life approach could have yielded a little more laughter to break up the mood. Did you note any flaws?
Edwin: I think it’s precisely the film Lelio intended, so I consider it an immense success on that level, though the general lack of an authorial stamp keeps me from wanting to go back and change my Top 10 list from last year. Still, it moved me in ways few foreign films have and seems bereft of practically all cultural barriers despite also feeling deeply reflective of Chilean society. I give it an A-minus.
Bruce: Hate to keep the echo chamber going, but you said it well. It may even be more than Lelio intended, since he started the project without knowing he’d find Vega. The only reason I’m rubber-stamping your A-minus instead of a full A is because I found the movie a trifle more muted than I think it needed to be. But that’s a close call. It’s still a triumph by any measure.
Grade: A-minus. Rated R. Now playing at the Fine Arts Theatre
(Photos: Sony Pictures Classics)