A Fanastic Woman Earned Its Oscar

Directed by Sebastián Lelio
Sony Pictures Classic, 104 minutes, R (nudity, sexuality, language)
In Spanish (some English) with subtitles

It baffles me why anyone cares about how others live—especially when their lives don't connect in any way to those who would judge and condemn. Does it really matter if someone is gay, binary, or gender fluid?

Last month, A Fantastic Woman took the Oscar for Best Foreign Language film. It is an amazing film and deserving of accolades, but it's my fervent hope that in the not-so-distant future it will look like a dinosaur and people will wonder what the fuss was about. If that happens, society will owe a debt of gratitude to Chilean director Sebastián Lelio, who also co-wrote the script.

The film centers on Marina Vidal (Daniela Vega), whom we first encounter decked in glamour and singing sultry soft jazz to the doe-eyed admiration of her older partner, Orlando (Francisco Reyes). Queue subdued soft lights. Then it's off to dinner, a surprise gift, and back to Oliver's apartment, where they are barely through the door before they are tearing at each other's clothing and making passionate love. Suddenly, though, one of the best nights of Marina's life turns tragic. This, however, is not a classic girl-loses-boy story; Marina is a transgendered woman.

Without revealing much, Marina soon finds herself caught in a cycle of suspicion, bavardage, moral bias, and personal indignities—all before she's allowed to grieve. Compounding this, remember that this takes place in Chile, with its long history of machismo; in the minds of many—including Orlando's ex-wife and her family—a "pervert" like Marina isn't really capable of grief. Now flavor this with a soupcon of magical realism and you have a powerful exploration of identity, but also a seat- squirming look at what makes us fully human: the social scripts we're supposed to follow or a person's essential nature? What unfolds is an age-old clash between human dignity and self-assumed sanctimony.

Daniela Vega portrays both Marina and herself, as she is indeed transgendered. On the screen she dazzles both in performance and her chameleon-like physicality. She plays Marina as one-part hunted animal and one part venting volcano. She knows that even her putative allies have her on informal probation, which means every moment of her life is a negotiation of when to stand her ground and when to turn the other cheek. Not to mention that though she knows that she's a woman, but she hasn't quite figured out what that means. Her angst is written in her body, carriage, and face. At one moment she is beautiful and exotic, but when she pulls her hair back and takes out her fury on a punching bag she presents as mannish in her anger and tearfully boyish when it subsides. Most of the time, she is androgynous—as befits one who lives betwixt and between; that is, between the identity she wishes and the judgments others saddle upon her. Whatever Vega doesn't emote on her own, cinematographer Benjamín Echazarreta paints in light. Pay close attention to the uses of color. There is a particularly exquisite scene at a club rave in which Echazarreta bounces color bars across Vega's face as if it were chatoyant war paint.

My first thought was to compare this film to early explorations into sub-rosa gay culture, such as Longtime Companion, but I think that Philadelphia is a better comparison. There's not much similarity between the two storylines, but the latter film was one of the first to mainstream something (AIDS) society wanted either to label the end product of reckless/immoral choices, or ignore altogether. Those who knew better dismissed Philadelphia as trite, but it is often the peculiar blind spot of the cognoscenti to think the masses deliberately wallow in stupidity rather than consider that it might simply take others more time to change their views. When that finally happens, films like Philadelphia indeed seem like relics.

In an ideal world, A Fantastic Woman would not need to be made; in this one, it does. See for its humanity and its raw honesty. Enjoy it because it's masterfully made and gorgeous to gaze upon. Watch it also with the knowledge that Ms. Vega did her own singing; once you hear her there is no doubt as to how she should present herself. Toward the end there is a scene in which Vega observes her own nude body. Pre-op or post-op? This isn't The Crying Game, so no gratuitous revelations. Why? Because it's none of our damn business and it doesn't matter. If you can't share common humanity with Marina/Daniela, shame on you. Daniela Vega is truly a fantastic woman.

Rob Weir