Monday, June 4, 2018

Movie Review: A Fantastic Woman

A Fantastic Woman *** ½ / *****
Directed by: Sebastián Lelio.
Written by: Sebastián Lelio & Gonzalo Maza.
Starring: Daniela Vega (Marina Vidal), Francisco Reyes (Orlando), Luis Gnecco (Gabo), Aline Küppenheim (Sonia), Nicolás Saavedra (Bruno), Amparo Noguera (Adriana), Trinidad González (Wanda), Néstor Cantillana (Gastón), Alejandro Goic (Médico), Antonia Zegers (Alessandra), Sergio Hernández (Profesor de Canto).
Sebastián Lelio’s Oscar winner for Best Foreign Language film A Fantastic Woman works so well because at heart, it is a simple, straight forward film. It stars Daniela Vega – a trans actress playing a trans character (something that is still too rare in Hollywood – perhaps because cis actors see these roles as awards bait) who simply wants to do what everyone in the world gets to do – grieve for their loved one when they die. But instead of that simple, humane request, she is treated with cruelty, mockery and derision by everyone she meets. The movie isn’t a tour of misery, but it is a reminder of how deep intolerance still runs.
The movie opens not with Marina, but rather with her boyfriend Orlando (Francisco Reyes) – who is in his late 50s – about twice Marina’s age – as he goes to his health club and runs other errands, before he heads to a club and sees Marina – and looks upon her with love, and she returns the look. They head out for a romantic dinner together, then back to the apartment they share, where they have sex. Later that night, he gets sick, and Marina rushes him to the hospital, but it’s too late, and Orlando dies. From that point on, the movie never leaves Marina’s side – she is at the center of nearly every shot for the rest of the film. The staff at the hospital look at her with suspicion – as do the cops when they arrive. There is some bruising, and a contusion on Orlando’s head. Of course, he fell down as they tried to get him down the stairs. A reasonable explanation – and one that if Marina were not who she is, one they would accept (they know he died of an aneurysm). But it’s not enough for the cops – even the detective (Amparo Noguera), who tries (and fails) to come across as friendly to Marina when they first meet – telling her she has a master’s in sex crimes, and knows what people like Marina go through. The problem is that she is not able to see Marina as more than a subject of her inquiry – she has to be either a victim or a criminal. The detective thinks nothing of pulling Marina in for a humiliating physical exam – even talking to the doctor about how to treat Marina when they’re all in the same room.
All that would be humiliating enough, but Orlando’s family is even worse. His ex-wife (Aline Kuppenheim) wants Marina to immediately return Orlando’s car, and move out of the apartment – and says cruel things to her when they meet (she calls her a chimera – denying Marina even her humanity) – and tells her to stay away from the wake and funeral to like the family mourn in peace. Orlando’s adult son does even worse things. To the family, the appearance of their grief to the outside world is more important than Marina’s own, very real grief. Orlando’s brother, Gabo, is kind to Marina – but also weak willed.
As an actress, Vega is a first timer – but she delivers a remarkable performance. It’s restrained and subtle for the most part – she will stand up for herself when necessary, and demands she be treated with respect, but she treats everyone with respect as well – even when they don’t earn that. The film puts her through some surreal and fantastical elements – a film noir inspired hunt for the meaning of a key, a fantasy dance number – and she handles those scenes as well. It’s a remarkable performance.
I wish the movie matched the performance though. Leilo’s film, like his breakthrough film Gloria, about an older woman learning to come out of her shell (it’s less How Stella Got Her Groove Back than it sounds) is restrained and subtle, and gives a showcase to a brilliant leading actress. But they are also perhaps a little too simple and straight forward. Here it almost seems like Leilo wanted nothing to distract for the very normal grieving process Marina is going through – so he kind of lets everything else fall away. A Fantastic Woman is still a very good film – and an important one. I just want Vega to get the showcase she really deserves – which would be a film as complex and layered as her performance.

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