Movie review: A Fantastic Woman
Chile’s entry into this year’s best foreign film race is a crafty exercise in deception that uses our desire to deny the obvious as its greatest gift
A Fantastic Woman
Una Mujer Fantastica
(In Spanish with English subtitles)
Starring: Daniela Vega, Francisco Reyes, Luis Gnecco, Aline Kuppenheim
Directed by: Sebastián Lelio
Running time: 1 hr 44 mins
By Katherine Monk
Human denial is a slithering thing, and it’s what makes A Fantastic Woman so fantastic: It winds itself around the ankles of realism as it glides into modern fable, a Cinderella fantasy with evil in-laws, and a particularly large glass slipper.
Chile’s entry in this year’s foreign film Oscar race, A Fantastic Woman stars Daniela Vega in the starring role of Marina — the supposedly fantastic female at the centre of the story.
The title carries two assumptions, and director, co-writer Sebastián Lelio spends the better part of two hours playing with them. When we first see Marina, she’s meeting up with her man, Orlando (Francisco Reyes — and yes, the name is a nod to Virginia Woolf) for a drink and dinner. They look like a happy couple, even if Marina seems a bit younger than the middle-aged Orlando. There’s a familiarity and an easy intimacy between the two lovers, and the evening unfolds like a rather ordinary date night — right up to the moaning.
Orlando wakes disoriented and unable to speak coherently. Marina tries to get him to the elevator. He falls down the stairs. By the time he arrives at the hospital, he’s bruised, unconscious and critical. Orlando’s story is over, but he leaves a big wake, with Marina bobbing around in the slipstream, at risk of being sucked under any minute.
There are so many forces beneath the surface, and the beauty of the dramatic design is the way it uses Marina as the constant swimmer, letting us see what those forces are in the way she reacts to each one.
When the police question her about the circumstances of Orlando’s death, and the bruises to his head, we realize the cops are making assumptions about what happened. When Marina deals with Orlando’s ex-wife and adult children, we see a similarly skewed dynamic, warped by a reflexive distrust of Marina.
We saw everything that happened before Orlando died. We know Marina is innocent of any wrongdoing. They were sharing love. Yet, we can see the way people look at her. We can feel a hardness in their gaze. And it all feels grotesquely unfair.
Even when we start to understand a little bit more about who Orlando was, and who Marina is, the prejudice acquires some context, but that only makes the injustice feel overwhelming, and more institutionalized.
That’s the point of A Fantasic Woman: Marina is a fantastic woman, but she doesn’t fit into a box. When people don’t fit into a box, society loses its ability to see them as people. They go into the box called “Other.”
The ugliness of intolerance is everywhere, but Lelio hits the sweet spot and turns Marina’s otherness into a home run of human redemption. At every turn, she demonstrates love and compassion, tolerance and strength. She stands up for those without a voice and speaks truth to power. Marina represents the very best of what a person can be, so if society has a problem with who she is, then it’s not her problem — it’s ours.
A graceful peeling of the onion that flirts with tragic notes without crushing your spirit, A Fantastic Woman is a fairy tale that takes us through the graveyard of old thinking with a different kind of princess.
THE EX-PRESS, March 2, 2018