Chimera Lens: Sebastián Lelio’s A Fantastic Woman

I’m writing today to head off what I worry will eventually become a problem in the appreciation of Sebastián Lelio’s latest film, the positively incandescent A Fantastic Woman, a problem that often afflicts movies with a self-conscious stance toward representation and are heralded widely as Important Works. I can already see it infecting the criticism. Its victory in the Best Foreign Language Film category at the Oscars galvanized public support for a gender equality bill in Chile, and its breakout star, Daniela Vega, has used the opportunity to give a series of wonderful interviews about trans people’s lives, rights, and experiences. Even as much ink is being spilled praising the film, though, it is being implied that the content somehow makes up for deficiencies in form.

One critic voices a “wish [that] Vega and Lelio let us in a little more to see [Marina] as an individual, aside from the hostility she encounters,” suggesting that the relentless onslaught of misery serves as a compensation for both missteps in plot and characterization. Others observe that the film’s villains seem “oddly bereft of moral ambiguity,” though “bigots in real life have a tendency to come across like one-dimensional caricatures, too.” The most pithy take reduces the film to ‘Microaggressions: The Movie,’ where the heartfeltness of Vega’s performance supersedes any considerations of the film as an achievement in its own right, that is, as a coordination of sight and sound.

It goes without saying that the film has an obvious investment in social justice, as any film with a positive portrayal of a trans character (played with no shortage of singing, dancing, stunt-pulling aplomb by a trans actress) must in 2018. But I am always nervous about the tendency, inherent to utopian rhetoric about the future of the representation of whatever marginalized community, to assume that such early prestige and quasi-mainstream works, ones whose politics are presented with uncomplicated authority, will eventually (and ideally!) hold no interest at some as-yet-unrealized moment of near-universal ethical change. The presumption that films advocating on behalf of oppressed constituencies can only or best be interpreted according to how well they raise consciousness, in the feminist-activist sense, necessarily begs the question of why the cast and crew of A Fantastic Woman would go through the trouble of making a feature-length movie rather than organizing a march, a benefit gala, or a leaflet distribution network.

This movie does much more than allow for its progressive target viewership to feel secure in their own acknowledgment of Marina’s humanity, or play the blood sport of loathing the increasingly disappointing and callous members of what would be, in a more just world, her family. And it is far more intriguing compositionally than extant writing about its story or its lead actress might suggest. Lelio, Vega, and the rest of their collaborators have instead produced a highly self-conscious meditation on cinema as an art form, and in so doing, grapple with how to translate a trans experience into a specific medium.

In the first place, A Fantastic Woman performs a similar swerve away from the plot of the stereotypical trans movie, any of several recent films that focus on the difficulty of transitioning, as we have recently seen mainstream gay and lesbian films refuse to rehearse yet another Coming Out Story. Marina is already Marina by the start of this film, fully enmeshed in a relationship with Orlando (Francisco Reyes), twenty years her senior. She has a (not great) job as a waitress working for a boss who genuinely seems interested in her happiness and well-being. She sings in a nightclub after hours, offering a vivacious salsa number with a full backing band. Orlando surprises her with tickets to Iguazu Falls, featured in the montage of opening shots – well, he would surprise her, if he could remember where he mislaid them, “senile old man” that he is. They share his apartment, play together with his dog Diabla, have sex in front of a window.

What seems striking about the whole opening sequence is how, to the untrained eye, nothing Marina does suggests she is anything other than the woman she presents herself as, the woman she is; no wigs, no hormones, no needles or excessive makeup trotted out as symbolic markers of transformation, even if her chest seems decidedly flat during her moment of eroticism. Marina, mostly, passes at a glance – a luxury still out of reach to many trans folks and not necessarily desirable for people identifying deliberately as non-binary, a different class altogether. But already, through the mere removal of those accoutrements, we are a world away from Dallas Buyers Club and Boys Don’t Cry and The Danish Girl and Transamerica. What matters, in the first fifteen minutes or so, is that we see Marina as a complete person, a woman in and of herself, rather than as the awkward calque of two people organized around a cut in time.

Orlando’s sudden death, and the nature of Marina’s involvement therein, brings the question of her history back to the film’s consciousness with a vengeance. Obliged to give an account of herself at the hospital, to explain whether she is “a member of the family or…” Marina feels the noose of what trans activist and theorist Dean Spade has called “bureaucratic violence” begin to tighten. Marina: surely that is a nickname? Why doesn’t that match the name on her official identification? And you and the deceased – slept together? Did you do drugs? His head wound – is that a kink thing? Please, sir… Faced with the onslaught of questions she has no doubt heard before (her level gaze speaks volumes), Marina telephones Orlando’s brother Gabo (Luis Gnecco) to hand the matter over to him. Knowing the authorities will neither grant her rights over managing her lover’s death nor cease to hector her about the apparent illegibility of her sex life, she runs from the hospital – only to be detained a few minutes later. Her vanishing act has unforeseen consequences, sending an obsequious, supposedly sympathetic sex crimes cop, Adriana Cortés (Amparo Noguera), to her workplace to gather information. She claims extensive credentials in matters pertaining to “people – I’m sorry, women like you,” not only having “seen it all” on the street but also having done a masters on the subject of sexual minorities. (Lah-dee-dah.) Her questions mingle suspicions about Marina’s involvement with drugs, sadomasochism, prostitution, even attempted murder. She’s complicated, you see – it’s all so complicated. If you could just answer a few questions, maybe…

Ultimately Detective Cortés’s meddling leads Marina to arguably the second-most violent scene in the movie, a medical theater strip-down at the police station to gather photographic evidence under exceedingly dubious pretenses. Lelio wisely avoids dropping the camera below Marina’s torso, since the status of her genitalia is utterly irrelevant both to her relationship to Orlando (note the complete lack of comment, by the way, on the deceased’s sexual peccadilloes) or to her self-representation. But this insistence to see Marina through a variety of inapt lenses and yet feel as though it is she who should tell you how best to see her is the means by which Lelio turns our attention to matters of cinematic form. As Orlando’s ex-wife Sonia (Aline Küppenheim) says to Marina in the subterranean garage where she makes her return her lover’s car (what right, again, does an ex have to that car?), “When I look at you, I don’t know what I’m looking at. A chimera, that’s what I see” Hot on the heels of her diagnosis of Marina as “a perversion, I’m sorry,” her likening of Marina to a mythical monster of stitched-together pieces says less about Marina’s self-presentation (as I’ve said, very much a woman) than it does about the optic through which Sonia chooses to see her. Her bigotry is not wholly objective; though it is unclear whether Marina caused the marriage to dissolve or whether Orlando told Sonia about his new girlfriend after the fact, few ex-wives (or ex-husbands) find it easy to encounter the newer, younger model in the flesh. Marina stoically accepts the insult, also a covert dig in Spanish slang against her class and education, insisting on validating Sonia’s feelings as “normal. You’re normal.”

At the same time, as Marina endures insult after insult, the film sublimates and even reparatively reclaims the slur of “chimera” as an intentional aesthetic stance. As Lelio himself discussed in an interview with Andrea Chase for Killer Movie Reviews, he was delighted to have such “a huge amount of freedom to make a complex film with many layers: a romantic film, thriller, character study, woman movie, funeral movie, a ghost story, a social film, a musical… This free, open identity was a great gift to me, to expand my own limits.” Lelio’s use of the word “layers” to describe its free-flowing appropriative structure strikes me as awkward, as it implies each of these genres operates simultaneously in the movie, albeit at different depths of accessibility. Instead, A Fantastic Woman’s various genre influences happen sequentially, as isolated scenes transport us from one cinematic mode to the next. From the brutal realism of Sonia and Orlando’s son Bruno (Nicolás Saavedra) and his friends kidnapping Marina in a pickup truck, dumping her in an alley populated by sex workers with Scotch tape contorting her face and “faggot!” ringing in her ears, we stumble into a dance club where Marina leads the assembled queers in an imaginary salsa-meringue-inspired cheerleading routine, culminating in her being hoisted to the heavens. An arresting sequence in which she walks along a city street as the wind gradually rises to almost cartoonishly freeze her in place dumps us immediately into an intimate scene with her voice instructor, a father figure she turns to for a bit of wisdom and the chance to rehearse some bel canto (and she’s really, genuinely good).

As the multiple shots of mirrors throughout the film suggest – funhouse, dressing room, a compact tastefully occluding Marina’s genitals while lying on a bed – much depends on the question of perception, the traces of other influences and past histories one is predisposed to see, and the extent to which such irruptions disturb the surface of the object or person as such. Lelio and Vega alike delight in this chimerical aesthetic, evocative of the idea that seeking to reduce the film to a single type of thing, however convenient or tempting, necessarily diminishes its complexity and significance. The disparate parts need not even work in concert – what person, after all, is completely coherent? – and thus trouble the veneer of coherence, as in the few scenes were Marina privately interrupts her performance of femininity to rage out on a punching bag, with a mean right hook and a decidedly squared jaw.

The film’s energetic mitigation of this insult, its employment of a chimerical aesthetic daring the viewer to decide what kind of thing they are watching while refusing categorical neatness, extends to the evocative title. In Spanish, as in English, the word “fantastic” has a couple of different meanings. On the one hand, it can signal a sort of holistic goodness – it is wonderful, breathtaking, virtuosic, not merely content with quotidian plainness, but extraordinary. But on the other, “fantastic” can also reflect the root of the adjective in fantasy, that which is fictitious, spurious, or a strain on one’s credulity – un-believable. Certainly there are characters in Marina’s life who would be more apt to use one version of “fantastic” to describe her than the other, including those who, unwittingly or maliciously, refuse even to allow Marina the dignity of her own name. In one heated argument with Sonia, in which the ex-wife tries to convince Marina that it would be disrespectful to attend Orlando’s funeral, she calls him “Daniel” to underscore her request – the force of which registers on Daniela Vega’s face as a spasm of disgust, a visible blow to her now supernatural composure. Moments like this completely unthinking cruelty, as well as Sonia’s outrageous and unnecessary outburst when Marina does at last appear at the wake – “NO ONE HERE SAYS ANYTHING!” – force viewers into the position of deciding which is more unbelievable: for Marina to present herself quite legibly as a woman or that the people who could be her family treat her with such outrageous callousness when all she wants to do is comply as conveniently as possible while still being allowed to mourn. As she spits at the sympathetic but lame (literally – his foot is broken) Gabo, “Isn’t it a basic human right to mourn the dead?” He can’t argue with her…

The fantastic has one other meaning more specific to the artsy world of literary theory, as defined with a capital F by the late structuralist critic Tzevtan Todorov. The Fantastic is a mode of storytelling wherein the reader (or viewer) is unable to completely decide whether an element of the story makes the whole work merely uncanny, and thus momentarily strange but fully rationally explicable, or completely marvelous, in which there is no choice but to accept the supernatural as a given. In the Fantastic, the supernatural element has a maybe-maybe not quality, shrouded in a destabilizing indeterminacy adjacent to magical realism, the mode par excellence of Latin American narrative art thanks to the outsize influence of Gabriel Garcia Marquez, Alejo Carpentier, and Jorge Luis Borges. Whereas the occasional gust of impossible wind or eruption into choreographed dance strikes me as closer in principle and execution to light-hearted manifestations of psychological expressionism, the world shaping itself to reflect Marina’s mind, the recurring appearance of Orlando’s ghost resists such absorption into the logic of postmodern cinema. Marina encounters Orlando’s silent specter at several moments of relative isolation: reflected in the rearview mirror of his car, watching her dance with a stranger in a queer nightclub, his bespectacled gaze flattened but somehow pointed, seeking to signify something even if Marina cannot be sure of what it is.

The possibility of spiritual intervention presents itself in a third-act revelation; a mysterious key Marina finds in Orlando’s car is twinned with one of her restaurant patron’s. He points her toward the neon, underground spa where Orlando started the film, an urban heart of darkness that Marina accesses as a woman before going topless and tying her hair up in a travesty of a man bun. For all its sleuthy portentousness, the sequence is still gently parodic, evocative of secret missions and thrillers even as it depicts cross-dressing not by way of putting on a costume, but instead by stripping down. Moving uncomfortably through the baths and locker rooms, Marina incarnates the nightmarish figure of right-wing transphobics obsessed with the sanctity of gender-segregated spaces, even as she proves that the space has no alluring thrill at all and she has no interest in any of the men there assembled. Approaching the locker, whose key we already know is a perfect fit, we hope with Marina that perhaps inside she will actually find the tickets to Iguazu, and thus receive some fitting compensation for her horrible mistreatment by Orlando’s family and have a chance to beautifully memorialize their love. The locker, of course, is empty. A Fantastic Woman is not this kind of a story, some mystery with an easy solution. Solutions demand work, patience, investment.

And perhaps a little help from a ghost. Marina marches to the cemetery only to find Sonia, Bruno, and Gabo driving right at her, bickering as always about what she is, telling her there’s no point in her coming, the funeral is over. So Marina jumps on their car, climbing over top of it in an act of sheer domination; they have taken her car, her apartment, her clothes, her dignity, and her lover’s corpse, but at the very least, they will give her Diabla back. Unfortunately, they’re right – she is too late. The body has been moved who-knows-where, being prepped for cremation. As she gazes off into the distance among the graves, though, a shadow out of the corner of her eye guides her back toward the crematorium. She follows it at a distance, through an unmarked access door and into the bowels of the building. Lit only by exit signs, she catches up just before he rounds the corner: Orlando. He moves in for a kiss, and she recoils in horror as the droning music swells. But then he touches her neck. She melts, like always, like it’s him. Around the corner, a large steel door, locked – she bangs on it for entry. And there he is, ready to be set ablaze. Could she have a moment to say goodbye? That’s all she’s wanted, really, since the beginning of the movie. Just one moment’s peace. Of course, the workers reply. They call her miss.

A Fantastic Woman makes a forceful argument for the worth of these small moments of validation. It is not merely a pity party, not merely a rehearsal of the everyday perils trans people face, but a demand for dignity in moments of profound abjection, that we should all do a little better at helping each other through the inevitably universal experience of grief. Perhaps Orlando’s ghost really did lead Marina to this moment of proper mourning and reconciliation. Perhaps she merely found her way there by intuition. Either way, we are left with both scenarios as equally fantastic, when it would have been so much simpler for everyone just to let her mourn in peace from the beginning. As a story of resilience, though, of snatching joy from the refuse of human cruelty, A Fantastic Woman is a revelation. Its pleasures are not the grandiose and vertiginous thrills at the top of a massive waterfall – they are instead the crinkling of an old dog’s nose, the sweat of a stranger’s neck, the chord at the beginning of an aria sung many times over.

As her voice teacher reminds Marina, paraphrasing St. Francis of Assisi, the bravest thing we can be in times of crisis is channels, or weapons, of peace, objects that endure even as the forces of hate and petty greed threaten our undoing. We join Marina for her curtain call, her final aria, Handel’s luminous “Ombra mai fu,” at last offered to an audience, after she has already sung the highly relevant recitative: Tuoni, lampi, e procelle non v’oltraggino mai la cara pace, né giunga a profanarvi austro rapace – May thunder, lightning, and storms never disturb your dear peace, nor may you by blowing winds be profaned. Such hope is nothing short of fantastic.

Next week, I’m looking at a movie I practically have memorized, but which I think always demands another glance: Thomas Alfredson’s Let the Right One In (2008), also turning 10 this year.


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