This year’s Academy Award winner for Best Foreign Language Film is an essential piece of work that feels both timely in it’s trans-genre narrative, and timeless in construction. Chilean director Sebastian Lelio (Gloria, The Year of the Tiger) has crafted a film that encourages conversation and societal confrontation, asking audiences to slip into the soul of a new, memorable and compassionate protagonist in modern cinema.
Marina (Daniela Vega) is a transgender woman whose happiness is threatened when her older lover, Orlando (Francisco Reyes), suddenly suffers a life-consuming aneurysm. His death is her loss, and what would often begin as a tale of coming to terms with one’s grief rapidly becomes something else entirely. Marina must overcome her feelings of remorse while being bombarded with discrimination and torment from Orlando’s grieving family members. She is subjected to an embarrassing and dehumanising series of punishments – becoming suspect to murder, injustice, and is torturously banished from attending the wake and funeral of her partner. Marina’s story becomes of survival, and through human resilience, one of empowerment.
There is so much to commend here. This is brave, important and riveting filmmaking, complete with a staggering and compassionate central performance from Vega. She takes the audience on a distressing and hypnotic journey through the struggles of staying loyal to one’s own true and heartfelt identity. Being transgender herself, Vega draws upon her own feelings and encounters without ever making the film feel like a documentary, something that would have been an easy mistake. Instead, everything feels cinematic, and it is the directorial grandeur which elevates the character. Marina is a force which, once seen, you cannot peel your eyes from. She is beautiful, proud, and considerate, but is branded as a “monster” by an antagonistic family enslaved to male testosterone and conservatism. In one particularly unsettling scene, she is hauled into a car, and her face is taped up as venomous abuse is hurled in abundance; pushed out into a seedy alleyway, she gazes upon her reflection in a car window. She sees a beautiful face distorted by the cruelty of others – product of a society intent on forcing her to appear the monster. However, Marina must not let herself be destroyed. She is a singer, in possession of a powerful voice that defines her; one of the film’s many exquisite metaphors.
Lelio is sure to preserve hope, and through the character of Orlando’s brother, an effort to understand and accept is shown to be something that is crucial, it makes him human. By providing insight into how different individuals tolerate and view the identity of others, the film becomes even more dramatically layered, mirroring a society of conflicting beliefs fit to burst, which undeniably appears timely of our own situation. However, as voiced, it is wondrously timeless. Immediately impressive is the use of colour, rich in neon and Technicolor glow that feels reminiscent of 1950’s Hollywood gloss, all the way up to the colour-drenched dance-halls of Jennie Livingston’s 1990 Drag-scene documentary, Paris is Burning. This is a film rich in influences, and the surrealism of some of Almodovar’s more prominent work is strikingly evident: a night-club dance sequence in uniform costuming – Marina centre stage – is a masterful sequence depicting the empowerment that can be felt when found at a distance from the prejudices and villainy of the outside world. Forcing herself to move forward against constraining winds, Marina feels that the very nature and design of the world she inhabits is opposed to her, but in this glamorous sequence, she is able to become the star that her self-confessed freedom should allow her to be – free of the imposed restrictions of those that choose not to understand.
Emotional, gripping and rich in symbolism, this is a defiant film that must be seen and discussed. Velio has constructed a cyclical journey of finding peace with one’s self that has unleashed the talents of Daniela Vega upon the world; thankfully, the Academy has recognised this significant achievement. A Fantastic Woman is harrowing, life-affirming, and simply demands to be seen. This is important cinema.