Friday, March 23, 2018

A Fantastic Woman Is A Fantastic Motion Picture

Hailing from director Sebastian Leilo, A Fantastic Woman is the most recent winner of the Best Foreign Language Film Academy Award, with its victory nearly a month ago cementing it as the first Chilena film in history to win that prestigious award. That put the motion picture and its star, Daniela Vega (who was also a presenter at this year's Oscars ceremony), on many people's radars. For those eager to know if A Fantastic Woman is indeed living up to the hype it's generated, I can say confidently that A Fantastic Woman (my first foray into the world of Chilean cinema) is indeed a great movie on its own terms.

Our story begins with Orlando (Francisco Reyes) taking a spa visit all on his own before heading off to a date night with his current lover. Once he arrives at the location for his romantic evening, he see's his significant other singing a tune on a nearby stage and it is here that we get to meet our lead character, Marina Vadel (Daniela Vega). Once she's done singing, the two have a charmingly naturalistic evening celebrating Marina's birthday with no big arguments or long-term disagreements between the two resurfacing in their time together. Instead of forced conflict, we get to see the duo (who have clearly known each other for eons) just enjoying each other's company. It's a night of normalcy, but one clearly full of romance-infused joy. 

Normalcy gets interrupted in the night when Orlando has an internal attack of some kind that requires immediate medical attention. Marina rushes Orlando to a nearby hospital, but it isn't long before he passes away, leaving Marina in an understandable state of distress. From here, Marina must deal with Orlando's extended family, who are, sans Orlando's brother, incredibly hostile to Marina's very continued presence in their lives due to Marina being a transgender individual. Transphobia from cis-gendered people is not a new concept to Marina of course and she's not about to let it stop her from getting one last chance to say goodbye to Orlando. 

Much of A Fantastic Woman revolves around Marina enduring the verbal slings & arrows of Orlando's extended family, including his wife and son who provide the most grief. Movies centering on members of disenfranchised populations (that disenfranchisement stemming from elements like race, gender identity, sexuality, etc.) experiencing extended abuse from privileged members of society have a tendency to come off exploitative of real-life bigotry rather than empathetic to the disenfranchised population in question, but A Fantastic Woman manages to both avoid that problem (from my perspective as a cis-gendered guy, so take that with a grain of salt) and create riveting drama by centering the film almost entirely from Marina Vadel's perspective.

Once Orlando passes away, the camera never cuts away from what Vadel is up to, the film is squarely concentrated on her internal plight. Specifically, Vadel's view of herself is what A Fantastic Woman is most concerned with, an idea reinforced by a visual motif of Vadel catching glimpses of herself in public reflections. We also get a handful of stylized sequences devoid of dialogue set inside Vadel's mind that visually depict what kind of struggles Vadel is going through. One of these is also perhaps the most beautiful scene of the entire feature, with the scene in question depicting Vadel getting caught up in an elaborate dance number. It's a stylized departure from the rest of the more muted movie and it's one that works beautifully in establishing the kind of freedom, confidence and acceptance Vadel wishes to have in her life. 

Exploring Vadel's own internal turmoil in response to the loss of a loved one gives A Fantastic Woman an insightful quality that heavily informs how poignant it is. The various forms torment Marina Vadel goes through is clearly not the sole purpose of this narrative, it is but one aspect of it. The purpose of that specific aspect is to show how casually both everyday people and people in positions of power (a police officer who misgenders Leilo fills in the latter role) deny the humanity of Transgender individuals like Marina in ways both big & small, thus feeding her pervasive desire for the aforementioned elements of freedom, confidence and acceptance that are on full display in that wonderfully realized dance sequence.

The way these themes of A Fantastic Woman manifest in such strongly realized visual forms are just one way that Leilo shows a deft hand in bringing this movies protagonists perspective to the screen. An array of clever pieces of camerawork and staging similarly show a remarkable level of creativity in Leilo. Clearly, there's lots to pore over in A Fantastic Woman, but best of all in this superb movie is Daniela Vega. If the script by Leilo and Gonzalo Maza is the blood fueling Vega, Vega herself becomes the beating heart of A Fantastic Woman. It's no wonder she accomplishes this when her performance is so richly detailed, particularly in her facial expressions that convey so much in a subtle fashion. It's a flat-out phenomenal performance that's responsible for some of the most powerful moments of pathos in A Fantastic Woman, a movie that certainly lives up to the second word in it's title.

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