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In the ever growing yet still somewhat scanty representation of LGBTQ in today’s cinema, films like A Fantastic Woman (featuring Chile’s first and only openly transgender actor as its star) are crucial in sparking serious discussion, it’s unfortunate that Sebastián Lelio—doing little to engage in serious conversation within the actual film—seems unusually constrained for a director known for his formal daring. Explicating the persecution and resilience of the transgender community as tired truisms, A Fantastic Woman feels cripplingly safe, opting for a declaration of obvious moral standards, underlined in bold, over penetrative study.
Somewhat to his benefit Sebastián Lelio approaches his material with a real shimmer, imbued with a breathtaking array of color and lighting A Fantastic Woman is nothing if not visual striking—evident from its very first frame; a sublime shot of the Iguazu Falls. From that image we dissolve into a dimly lit bathhouse where a near unconscious, fifty-something Orlando (Francisco Reyes) is briefly caught in a moment of euphoria. We then follow him to a lavish club where he, and the viewers, see Marina (Daniela Vega) for the first time singing on stage. As day melds into night Orlando and Marina, after a romantic dinner, make love inside of their high-end apartment, seemingly an end to a perfect night.
Out of the blue, however, Orlando falls gravely ill and, that same night, dies almost the moment he arrives at the hospital. From there the film shifts to the perspective of Marina and takes a walk in her perilous shoes. Tasked with notifying Orlando’s family (his brother, bitter ex-wife and son) of the man’s untimely death Lelio seems to be setting up a number intriguing conflicts, all portending to Marina’s identity. Lelio’s intent, to see how society examines transgenderism when placed under a societal periscope, seems a promising start off point for some real investigation into society’s aversion to sexual stereotypes and myths.
One uncomfortable encounter after another we witness a deep-seated resentment sown between Orlando’s immediate family members and the new lover he’s taken in—first the son arrives at Marina’s doorstep making demands for his inheritance, the ex-wife then appears, barring Marina from attending Orlando’s funeral. Both characters behave in self-interest, little if any indication is shown of them being gravely affected by Orlando’s death. Seemingly divorced from grief, neither come from a place of genuine emotion. This oversimplification of character helps Lelio who, refusing to give Orlando’s family any more than cruel and heartless surfaces, makes them more manifestly evident forms of society’s more repugnant prejudices.
The one exception to this is Orlando’s brother who is the most forward minded and sympathetic of the family members, but equally negligible in a story context. Never do we get to explore where the family comes from, or get to the heart of the family’s blind hatred for Marina (or why Orlando’s brother is the only one kind to her). For the entirety we’re curiously disassociated from everyone else’s narrative—which may be the point, the rejection and isolation of a spurned minority, but the result remains a fatally blinkered one.
The argument made here will be whether the viewpoints of bigots deserve any scrutiny whatsoever, but such a moral repulsiveness has been dealt with on screen prior and with compelling (and even transcendent) results in Neil Jordan’s The Crying Game when its morally conflicted hero is confronted with a different sexual perspective in the most elicit and confrontational manner possible, and learns to confront those feelings through bigotry and prejudice.
But perhaps even more disappointing than the family’s depiction is the paper-thin portrait of Marina herself. Played by Daniela Vega, herself a remarkably empowering presence, the finely tuned actress only ever gets to play the victim in her own narrative of liberation and everyone else the villain (or worse, ornaments). The vastly more enriched Tangerine have done well to acknowledge the inherent victimization of the transgender community whilst shrewdly avoiding the facile victim-complex A Fantastic Woman embraces, focusing instead through ethnography, diffidence and exhibition a world where the transgenders, like everyone else, can show robustness and flawed character in equal measure.
Sebastián Lelio, through expressive color grading, camera movement and transitional shots, demonstrates plenty of promise working behind the camera, employing sight and sound to an almost incantatory effect, but with similar premises in their films (Ma vie en rose and All About My Mother), along with a similar taste for the avant-garde, filmmakers Alain Berliner and Pedro Almodóvar have shown to be remarkably progressive and complex in their sensibilities, even more so than Sebastián Lelio whose film—released almost 20 years after theirs—still feels behind. Despite the uniquely evocative atmosphere Lelio creates A Fantastic Woman still falls to obvious pitfalls of politicized filmmaking (more inherent with more studio-mandated weepies). Resorting to sentimentalization and superficiality, he grinds his progressive and potentially radical subject matter into a more processed, easily digestible product.