ON SUNDAY night at the Academy Awards, history was made when Sebastian Lelio’s A Fantastic Woman became the first film from Chile to take home the Best Foreign Language Film award.
An accomplishment in itself but this also represented another example seen frequently this decade where the film that won that award proved a superior picture to the Best Picture winner, The Shape of Water.
Both moving and at times gruelling, this tells the story of a relationship between a 57-year old man Orlando (Francicso Reyes) and his partner, a transgender woman named Marina (Daniela Vega) who works as a waitress by day and singer by night.
The first shot depicts a waterfall, a possible sign of a holiday that the two are planning on embarking. After dining out, the two go home but later that night, Orlando wakes up in discomfort, falling down stairs in his ill state. He is rushed to hospital by Marina but passes away soon after.
As Marina comes to terms with her loss, she finds herself confronted by Orlando’s family, who resent and loathe her for the relationship she had with Orlando. She faces the possibility of losing what she and Orlando owned together, like their apartment, car and dog, as well as not having the chance to say goodbye to her partner because of the family.
As well as having to stave off the growing hostility, she also has to contend with doctors and police detectives, detailing the prejudice that her lifestyle has bought.
Central to the film’s success is the ability to present an unconventional lifestyle presented through the eyes of its main character. The love story between Marina and Orlando though brief is genuine and sincere and the effect that Orlando’s death has is devastating. The film therefore takes us on a journey where grief is evident but is placed alongside the prejudices and humiliations that are depicted in a convincing and painful manner, in stark contrast to the tranquil lifestyle depicted earlier on.
We get an insight into how the family’s feelings of the relationship are presented when one of the sons, clearly grief-stricken, visits Marina with his demeanour gradually becoming aggressive. Lelio’s use of location is successfully illustrated, turning the place previously from a place of love and happiness to an area of discomfort and unsafety.
Just alone from the moment that Orlando passes and Marina is confronted by the doctors, we suspect something does not feel right in terms of behaviour. Thanks to Lelio, the film is handled with a sensitivity that never allows the transphobia depicted to come across as gratuitous and inappropriate.
The use of the detective provides the film with more substance giving the opportunities it allows to present, notably when the detective goes to speak to Marina at the restaurant she works in, with Marina’s determination to keep the visit discreet clear.
In one of the film’s more uncomfortable scenes, at the insistence of the detective investigating the relationship, Marina undergoes an awkward medical examination, including being photographed while undressed.
As well as a real human drama, the film succeeds genuinely as a love story, given Marina’s love of her partner is strong enough to the point that veiled threats are not going to stop her from attempting to say goodbye to her beloved. There are times when we wonder if the lovers will get the goodbye they deserve and the film’s atmosphere allows us not to take anything for granted.
The character of Marina is a well-written one, not conforming to a clichéd or stereotypical representation and possesses a confident and determined status, which has the potential to endanger herself. The fact that she refuses to bow down to brutish behaviour and stands up to herself consistently is a blessing for the story, with the tension building effectively.
Her actions prompt cheers at the same time that they prompt fear and it is scenes like this which demonstrate the talent of Vega in the lead role, whose combination of sympathy, victimisation and strength are demonstrated with a natural flair. Another character worthy of praise is that of Gabo, Orlando’s brother, a much more sympathetic and easy-going character who reminds us that not all the adults in the family are selfish bullies using grief to justify their lack of compassion.
Along with The Dance of Reality, El Club and Neruda, A Fantastic Woman is another solid piece of contemporary Chilean cinema that extends reliability within its homeland.