Fantastic Woman, A (2017)

Review #1,586

Director:  Sebastian Lelio
Cast:  Daniela Vega, Francisco Reyes, Luis Gnecco
Plot:  Marina, a transgender woman who works as a waitress and moonlights as a nightclub singer, is bowled over by the death of her older boyfriend.

Genre:  Drama
Awards:  Won Best Screenplay, Prize of the Ecumenical Jury - Special Mention & Teddy Award (Berlin).  Won 1 Oscar - Best Foreign Language Film
Runtime:  100 mins
Rating:  M18 (passed clean) for language, sexual content, nudity and a disturbing assault
Internatonal Sales:  Funny Balloons
Singapore Distributor:  Darpan Global

“I don't know what you are.”

The 2018 Oscar winner for Best Foreign Language Film comes to our shores courtesy of the good work by Darpan Global, a Singapore-based distributor of primarily popular and art cinema from India.  You may wonder about its motivation for releasing it theatrically here—well, after all a Chilean transgender film is as foreign as it gets in this part of the world—but embedded within Darpan's logo is a tagline: ‘Integration Through the Arts' and it all becomes clear.  We certainly need more of these trailblazing LGBT films to arrive in greater numbers to our conservative land.

A Fantastic Woman is firstly an artful, musically-rich work, and through its character study of a transgender, we become privy to the emotional struggles of someone who is unreasonably judged as an outcast of society.  Secondly, it avoids sensationalisation, or what I would call the ‘camp flamboyant-ising’ of this community, often stereotypically depicted as wannabe participants of cross-dressing beauty contests or performers in dinghy nightclubs.  

A winner of Best Screenplay at the Berlin International Film Festival, A Fantastic Woman is at its core a film about grief, as the main character confronts a life of potential emptiness after the sudden death of her older lover.  At first hired as a script consultant, Daniela Vega who plays Marina became writer-director Sebastian Lelio’s first-choice in the leading role.  She is not just a real-life transgender (and this is only her second acting role in film), but a trained mezzo-soprano (whose beautiful voice we hear in the movie). 

She gives a terrific performance, but never for once succumbing to theatrics nor appearing to try too hard to embody her character with a clear sense of emotional vulnerability.  To that end, Marina is someone whom we care enough to like—and would gladly follow in her journey to find her resolve in life.  But she can also be challenging to read, and her guardedness means that we may not know her well enough to empathise.  This could either be a masterstroke by Lelio or a slightly frustrating treatment of a fascinating character.

A Fantastic Woman has a lyrical, sometimes elliptical quality to it, which mostly helps to draw us into the feelings of its lead character.  The opening shot of the Iguazu Falls, played to the rich, layered sounds of Matthew Herbert’s brilliant faux-symphonic electronic score, recalls the breathtaking beauty of a similar moment in Wong Kar-Wai’s Happy Together (1997).  I enjoyed this more than Lelio’s latest lesbian drama, Disobedience (2018), which is far more subdued and less interesting thematically.

Verdict:  Lelio’s work has a lyrical, sometimes elliptical quality to it, if only to draw us into the emotional struggles of its transgender lead, whom we care enough to like but not well enough to empathise.  





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