'A Fantastic Woman'
The deserved Best Foreign Language Film Oscar nominee ‘A Fantastic Woman’ is one of those “movies we need right now” that you tend to read about quite a bit this time of year – heavy dramas that deal with pertinent issues, like cinematic vegetables to make up for all the superhero blockbusters. It’s also a pleasant surprise to report that the movie is gripping and moving and vital on levels beyond its themes and subject matter. Thankfully, that means it’s actually a movie we need right now, not just one that feels close enough to attract the attention of Oscar voters.
Daniela Vega stars as Marina Vidal, that woman you heard is so fantastic from the title. She’s a talented singer who works as a waitress between her nightclub spots. She’s not particularly adored as an artist by the public, but she is loved deeply by one man. His name is Orlando (Francisco Reyes), and he’s far older and far wealthier than Marina, but they work. We see that intimately in an opening sequence where he watches her perform then lovingly takes her to celebrate her birthday. Then he dies. Suddenly. She takes him to the hospital and flees. Why? Because she’s a trans woman. She knows what’s coming next. The police assume she’s a prostitute. Doctors prod her with invasive questions and even more invasive procedures. Despite the fact she had been living with Orlando, his family are instantly dismissive. They kick her out of her home, then ban her from attending the funeral services. They barely even treat her like a person. The saddest thing is that you can tell just by the look on Marina’s face that none of this surprises her. She’s seen it before and she’ll see it again. She’s come to accept it.
Daniela Vega is remarkable in the titular role, a rare trans woman getting the opportunity to play such a character herself. She’s in every frame, and Chilean co-writer/director Sebastián Lelio holds his steady and probing cameras directly on the actress’ face almost constantly. She runs through a gamut of emotions dealing with all the stages of grief and all the forms of bigotry. Even so, her performance is not one of hysterics overwhelmed by her feelings, but stoic strength. Through painful repetition and reality, it’s clear just how many times Vega’s character has faced this type of oppression and aggression. This may be a particularly extreme circumstance and she may even get to deservedly lash out a few times, but it’s still tragically routine hatred. The strength her performance projects is as potently as it is heartbreaking.
Lelio may dial in with deliberate precision on that single performance to carry the weight of the picture, but he hardly leaves himself out of it. The movie is gorgeously shot and carefully crafted – oddly with cinematic language more commonly associated with a thriller than a drama. The film delivers constant tension as Marina marches from one punishing ordeal to the next. Lelio lays the atmosphere on thick and keeps the audience forever on edge. Hitchcockian devices like a mysterious locker key that Orlando left behind and Marina’s quiet quest to find it are also worked in, but the tale never shifts totally into genre territory, even if reality is often pushed a little too far. The answer to the mystery box is ultimately a metaphor. The technique works in service of subjectively putting viewers into the perspective of a voice in society that’s rarely heard.
‘A Fantastic Woman’ has tremendous potency and beauty for a film of such a small scale. It says so much, digs so deeply, a treats subject matter that could otherwise have been needlessly sensationalistic with respect. That’s not to say it’s all stuffy fuddy-duddy, self-important filmmaking, though. The movie has laughs and thrills and explosions of emotion. It’s very much alive while making polemic points to the audience.
The little film deserves all the attention it has received this awards season, if not more. Daniela Vega should be up for acting prizes. She gives a performance few actresses came close to matching last year. But that wasn’t to be. Perhaps that was too much of a leap for even this particularly politicized Oscar season. Maybe next year.