Christopher Schiller examines the complexities of Sebastian Lelio’s film, A Fantastic Woman.
There has been and will be a lot said about Sebastian Lelio’s film A Fantastic Woman (opening domestically February 2, 2018.) Many of the descriptions will focus on how well it represents the current power of Chilean cinema and continues Lelio’s legacy of powerful, female-centric storytelling. Others will tout it as a brave and forthright representation of the LGBTQ+ community’s plight in modern society. Each of these somewhat narrow perspectives are true and well worth observing. But the film is broader in scope and wider in audience attention than any of those niches would allow. This film speaks eloquently and with unblinking honesty to the universal elements of heartfelt grief and the complex problems of family. In that telling the audiences will be riveted with uncomfortable familiarity through those themes. An exploration of the universality of the film will reveal the entire spectrum painted there.
A fantastic writer/director for A Fantastic Woman
Sebastian Lelio is no newcomer to brave filmmaking. With his first feature, La Sagrada Familia making an impressive debut in 2006 he came into international renown with his fourth, the much accoladed Gloria in 2013. And he is anything but slowing down, with his first English language feature, Disobedience making the festival rounds right on the heals of A Fantastic Woman.
All three of his latest films anchor in the telling of strong women’s stories. But being prolific with female-centric story ideas has not stopped him from putting in the time needed to get each story right. As any truly caring craftsman writer/director would, once he had the idea of the subject matter he wanted to explore with A Fantastic Woman he realized that he did not have enough personal experience with the LGBTQ+ world to tell the story truthfully. And so he did his research. He turned to his friends and asked questions. As every single friend he asked came to understand the scope of the story he wanted to tell, they each independently told him, “Oh, you need to speak to Daniela.”
Since so many signs were pointing to her, he quickly arranged a meeting. And he immediately understood why she was the perfect person to turn to.
A fantastic woman to play A Fantastic Woman
Once you meet Daniela Vega you know immediately why she was first to mind for so many. She is an impressive individual. I had the pleasure of meeting and speaking to her at the Sony Pictures Classic’s press dinner at the Telluride Film Festival. Sitting across a dinner table from Vega, it was easy to feel her powerful presence, fully real and in the moment, attentive to every detail. She is a wonderful, real-life example of a powerful, fantastic woman. Of course that’s why Lelio immediately thought to cast her as soon as he met her. But he kept that secret to himself until much later.
Lelio first hired her to help research the details of telling the story of the film as realistically as possible. In the months of researching and exploring possibilities, settings, interplays and places that could make the story come fully to life, Vega was essential. Her intimate understanding of the life her character would have to experience influenced every nuance, every choice made. The love of their city of Santiago plays into the character of the film just as dramatically.
Not only did Vega’s knowledge of the intricacies of the culture, both broad and sub, play into the formation of the role, her own skill set played into the fleshing out of the character of Marina. It is her own beautiful, operatic voice used in the picture, something she demonstrated forcefully in convincing Lelio which opera should be used in the final scene. During the decision making process she marched into his office and just sang it right there without accompanyment. Lelio was convinced.
Daniela Vega is no stranger to acting, having commanded Chilean stage and screens many times in well received roles as well as performed as an actress and singer in clips and music videos. And even though Santiago has no permanent professional opera company she performs opera whenever the opportunity presents itself. She is not a person to be denied of the goals she sets for herself, and her aim is always high. These qualities were in perfect alignment with the part that was created. And when Lilio finally told Vega that he wanted her to play the part she paused only for a moment at the enormity of the task, went out that night and partied with her friends then got down to serious work.
The story of A Fantastic Woman
Crafted by Lelio and co-screenwriter, Gonzalo Maza, the film begins at the pinnacle of a couple’s building love affair. Marina is a young waitress and aspiring singer. Orlando, played understated and perfectly, albeit briefly, by the stalwart actor Francisco Reyes, is a businessman divorcé and 20 years older. But, in their eyes they are finding they are perfect for each other. After touchingly celebrating Marina’s birthday with the promise of a trip to the falls together, tragedy strikes. Orlando falls ill and though Marina rushes him to the hospital, he dies.
Grieving and complexity follows. In a well-crafted slow reveal, we learn how precarious Marina’s life has been and is being a transgender woman in modern day Santiago, Chile. While dealing with Orlando’s family, we encounter a familiar tone of familial discord. Mixed in with the sense of unresolved issues with Orlando’s choices in life are the difficulties of trying to move on without being able or willing to resolve them. Marina is tossed and tumbled by the emotions of being shut out of the grieving process by the family. But she is not one to be denied even in the face of tremendous adversity. She confronts and is rebuffed. Gets up and tries another time. All the while her own emotional turmoil plays internal battles which occasionally leak out in fantasy sequences, artfully and seamlessly stitched into the realism by Lelio’s stylistic choices.
There are heartbreaking complex questions being asked by this film that fathom the complications and seldom resolve to a clear answer. As an example when Orlando’s estranged son, confused, depressed and angry, asks Marina, “What are you?” she answers, “I’m just like you.” The complexity behind the truth of that answer resolves nothing of the gulf between these two disparate souls united and divided by a common grief. What are any of us?
The story is a universal one of family and grief. The discord of Orlando’s relatives is wonderfully counterpointed by the strong, familial ties of Marina’s sister and brother in law, even though that family unit has it’s bickering center. Love bounds both families. And isolates them. The storytelling dances wonderfully within the complexities of lives we can all relate to and recognize from our own experiences close to home.
Is A Fantastic Woman award worthy?
I want to make the case that this film is so well crafted and performed that it should be in serious consideration for awards not normally considered the purview of a foreign language film offering. Both Lelio’s craftsmanship and care with subject and execution, as well as the stellar performance by Vega should stand toe to toe with the best this year’s crop of cinema has to offer. They’ll stand up to such scrutiny and shine under such a spotlight.
Arguing Vega’s case, it takes a powerful actress to inhabit so achingly believable a character going through such emotional turmoil. Add on the fact that for all but the first five minutes she commands the screen and never leaves the unblinking observational bounds of the audience. And she carries them with her through every emotional upheaval.
It is a powerful and yet subtle performance Delio and Vega conspire to deliver here. You witness her character’s entire, painful, slow, transformational arc. I would argue even more so than the equally powerful yet unchanging character performance of Frances McDermitt in Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri, a performance that definitely will play a part in awards discussions. Vega’s performance deserves to be discussed alongside.
In my opinion Vega delivers an Academy nomination worthy performance. Whether she’ll be given the consideration due might be stacked against her. Her relative newness to the Hollywood radar and being in a foreign language film being only some of the hurdles such a campaign would need to overcome. But she delivered a stellar performance, one I will not soon forget.
The film has been chosen as Chile’s official entry for AMPAS Foreign Language contention. But the film has much more to say – and does so loudly and eloquently – than consideration in just that one category. To quote Lelio from the film’s press kit:
“I think that the film communes intimately with its character’s identity. In Spanish, the word that is used to refer to sexual identity is the same one that is used to allude to narrative style: genre. In this sense, the film itself is “trans – genre”. It’s a romance film, a ghost film, a fantasy film, a film about humiliation and revenge, a document of reality, a character study. The identity of the film itself fluctuates, it doesn’t set, it doesn’t stop, and it refuses to be reduced to one single thing. The fact that it can’t be explained in any single way is perhaps one of A FANTASTIC WOMAN’S most contemporary aspects.”
It is a much bigger film, taking on huge and timely substance and telling its tale wonderfully.
The script itself is so well written. It uses language and silences alike to an impeccable degree. Silences are filled with emotional complexities. Seemingly mundane conversations are loaded with subtext and restraint. The script has no dead weight. Though it travels through very weighty subject matter, it never loses its sense of humanity, its reality.
And Delio’s deft hand at directing matches the stellar levels set by the other stand out elements. I had to see the film a second time to be able to catch the subtleties throughout that make this such a powerful performance by both Lelio and Vega. Down to the very breaths taken, every element is woven into such a rich and fulfilling environmental world. The flights of fancy into the broken mindset of Marina at first felt off the rails but upon reflection perfectly reflect the state of mind of anyone who might be placed in that kind of situation. If all the pegs holding you up in deliriously high heights were suddenly knocked from under you all at once, it’d not be surprising to spin off kilter once in a while before finding your footing again. It truly is a complex and universal story. Like its subject, you can’t put it easily in a box, nor should you. And by allowing it to be unique, you get to see it in its full beauty.
To me, the message of A Fantastic Woman is clear. Society tends to want to compartmentalize things. Once you can put something in a box you no longer have to think about it. But people should never be put in a box. Who we are shouldn’t be assumed because of some label we wear. We are all individuals, with individual needs, desires and dreams. Trying to shortcut those aspects denies our existence. It dehumanizes. And that’s unfair. We don’t need a box to know how to treat someone. We need to see that someone as a real person, fully there right in front of our eyes. Each is unique in their own way, we are all different and that’s what makes us alive.