Every detail of A Fantastic Woman is brilliantly expressive

The vibrant style and intelligent characterisation is typical of its Chilean director, Sebastián Lelio.

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You have to be pretty sure of your material and your lead actor before deciding to call your film A Fantastic Woman, and the confidence of the Chilean director Sebastián Lelio turns out not to be misplaced. From the moment the camera catches sight of the singer Marina Vidal (Daniela Vega) in a Santiago hotspot, where she brings panache to a salsa-infused torch song, it is fully captivated and so are we. Marina has recently moved in with her older lover, Orlando (Francisco Reyes), who takes her out for a meal where the servers assemble at the table and sweetly sing: “Happy birthday, dear lady…” Hold that thought. After Orlando suffers an aneurysm and dies, Marina is plunged into a hostile world where she is forced to defend not only the validity of their relationship but her identity itself. Orlando loved her as a transgender woman. No one else proves quite so accepting.

Reactions to Marina range from contempt to outright aggression. Repeatedly she finds herself justifying her gender to callous officials and prurient onlookers. “I don’t know what I’m seeing,” sneers Sonia (Aline Küppenheim), Orlando’s ex-wife. His loutish son, Bruno (Nicolás Saavedra), asks if she has gone “under the knife” and tells her: “I don’t know what you are.” When she is assaulted, her attackers bind her face with tape. Her self-respect is an affront to them – she doesn’t fit their narrative. Only in disfiguring her, albeit temporarily, can they regain control. They’re determined that she should see herself as they see her.

This battle is played out repeatedly in eloquent visual terms. Marina’s oppressors try to strip her of beauty and dignity, and the film keeps restoring those qualities by making her magnificence indisputable. The camera is her cheerleader; the cinematographer Benjamin Echazarreta shoots in ecstatic, weightless widescreen, placing her squarely in the centre of the frame. This is cinema as portraiture, situating the subject against a colourful canvas so that vitality seems to follow her everywhere. There are several fantasy sequences but reality looks no less vivid. Reeling through the streets at night after Orlando’s death, she is soaked in green and orange neon. The red plastic seats on a bus, or the yellow décor in a diner, lend the images a Pop Art zing. At her lowest ebb, she is left floundering in a dank alley, with only graffiti of skulls and skeletons—bodies at their basest – to keep her company.

The caustic Adriana (Amparo Noguera), head of the Sexual Offences Unit, pressures Marina into undergoing a physical examination on a spurious pretext. The camera, choosing not to collude in this humiliation, keeps a respectful distance. When she does appear almost naked near the end of the film, it is on her own terms, with a clever bit of prop placement that conceals in one sense and illuminates in another: clasped between her thighs as she reclines on the bed is a shaving mirror, reflecting her face. This tension between withholding and revealing is found also in the screenplay (by Lelio and Gonzalo Maza), which omits any mention of the struggles Marina may have gone through. All that matters is her identity as she defines it; anything else is none of our business. In refusing explanations and thwarting whatever dubious need we might experience to gaze at her body, the film preserves Marina’s integrity. The impact of casting Vega, a trans performer herself, is considerable, though it would count for little were she not also a magnetic actor.

The vibrant style and intelligent characterisation won’t come as a surprise to anyone who saw Gloria, Lelio’s delightful comedy about a divorcee hitting the singles scene. (The director is currently remaking it in the US, with Julianne Moore in the title role.) A Fantastic Woman has drawn comparisons with Almodóvar and not only for its subject matter: every detail is expressive in a way that calls to mind that Spanish master. The restaurant where Marina works is decorated with sprawling illustrations of pterodactyls and triceratops, and in a triumphant scene she becomes a ferocious dinosaur too, stomping on Bruno’s car in an impromptu replay of Jurassic Park. The scene is comic and oddly stirring, the message clear. She is woman. Hear her roar.

A Fantastic Woman (15)
Dir: Sebastián Lelio

Ryan Gilbey is the New Statesman's film critic. He is also the author of It Don't Worry Me (Faber), about 1970s US cinema, and a study of Groundhog Day in the "Modern Classics" series (BFI Publishing). He was named reviewer of the year in the 2007 Press Gazette awards and is Film Critic in Residence at Falmouth University.

This article appears in the 01 March 2018 issue of the New Statesman, The rise of the radical left