Some films stand alone, while others provide bridges. Some films are definitive, while others open up discourse.
A Fantastic Woman, Sebastián Lelio’s and ’s lyrical Oscar nomination for Best Foreign Film, manages to do all those things. It’s the story of Marina, a trans-woman, whose lover dies at the beginning, and she must find her way to both grieve and to move on. Against her are the predictable forces, both social and personal. To its credit and its glory, the film avoids or subverts the predictable, and gives us something original, engaging, lovely, and profound.
At both the edges and the heart of this film there is a mystery. It begins with an object of mystery, a lost envelope, which serves as the film’s MacGuffin, and like Hitchcock’s original use of the device, it’s something that jump starts the action, but is not the true subject, it merely gets us to the heart of the matter.
And the heart of the matter in this film is identity, which in so many ways is a conundrum of mysteries.
Who are we? Who is Marina? For many, she is a woman. For some, she is a man pretending. As transgender, is she either? Both? Something unique and apart?
These are the social-sexual questions that the other characters in the film wrestle with, as they can only see and know the Marina they interact with and to whom they bring their own personal issues and grievances.
But central to Lelio’s concern is who does Marina think she is, and there lies the treasure of this film. Simply put, Marina is one of most intriguing characters seen in a movie this year. She is vulnerable, but self-possessed. Side-swiped by the tragedy of her loss, but determined to grieve and honor the love that existed between her and Orlando, her older lover.
It’s the interaction between this very human character and an inhumane society that makes up the central conflict of the film. And much to my delight, that conflict is embodied and developed through the action and characters. Never is it given an explanatory or triumphant speech. Instead, Marina labors towards and possesses her personhood. By honoring her love for Orlando, she raises the humanity of everyone involved, including the viewer.
Lelio and company do this as much through style as content. Daniela Vega’s performance as Marina Vidal is both sweet and riveting. Vega allows us to see the vulnerability beneath the strength and determination, while Lelio consistently composes her in positions of power, often in center frame.
As a side note, this film exposes a weakness in the Academy Award nomination process. This is a Best Actress performance, period. Why wasn’t she nominated?
Lelio also, being a Chilean, feels free to use magic realism: symbolizing Marina’s struggle to fighting a wind tunnel velocity headwind; floating above the disco floor to signify her rising above the anonymous sex of the underground scene; and using the haunting reappearance of Orlando to lead her through a Dantesque underworld to the moment of departure and release.
In the end, Marina has earned it all, claimed it all with a not-so tender tenacity (and with a little practice with a punching bag), undergone transformation by tape into a Francis Bacon self-portrait from Orlando’s hateful relatives, into an distorted image in their minds; suffered humiliation from the authorities; even braved the labyrinth of a hellish sauna, being able to transverse the gender divide, to discover the secret behind the closed locker door. She gets through it whole and healed.
Which leaves us, the audience. How we feel about Marina, about this film, will largely be determined by what we arrived with and how comfortable we can live with mystery. This is visualized through Marina’s genitalia. Or rather un-visualized. We never see her genitalia, though we do see a mirror there once, reflecting her face, begging the question, Is gender and identity in our minds? Are we to identify with our genitalia? Is that who we are?
In the end, for Marina, all that is in the mind of the other. In her own mind, she is Marina, who sings in her own voice the loveliest of Handel arias “Ombra mai fu”, a song originally written for a castrato. But Marina is no castrato, she is a fantastic woman.