'A Fantastic Woman' ('Una Mujer fantastica'): Film Review | Berlin 2017

Courtesy of Berlin International Film Festival
Daniela Vega in 'A Fantastic Woman'

Chilean director Sebastian Lelio follows 'Gloria' with another intimate exploration of female solitude, sexuality, humiliation and resilience, this time built around a transgender singer.

Four years ago, Sebastian Lelio shook up the official competition in Berlin with Gloria, a bracingly honest, ultimately empowering study of the rocky journey of a middle-aged divorcee, stumbling toward completeness with a gradual affirmation of her self-worth and independence. True to its title, the Chilean director's extraordinary new film, A Fantastic Woman, is a superlative companion piece. Another work of searing empathy, it traces the emergence from devastating grief of a young transgender protagonist, treated like a criminal in the wake of her older partner's abrupt death.

Shocking and enraging, funny and surreal, rapturous and restorative, this is a film of startling intensity and sinuous mood shifts wrapped in a rock-solid coherence of vision. Acquired by Sony Pictures Classics for the U.S., it should carve a significant commercial path while further elevating Lelio in the rising-star ranks of international filmmakers.

While it's politically charged and very much of the moment in terms of its representation of trans-rights issues, what's perhaps most remarkable is that not a word of direct advocacy is spoken. Any trace of the agenda movie is deftly subsumed in pulsing human drama.

The emotionally penetrating singularity of focus on a woman alone, reeling from loss, in some ways invites comparison with the recent Jackie, directed by another bright light of Chilean cinema, Pablo Larrain, one of the main producers here through Fabula, the company he heads with his brother, Juan de Dios Larrain.

While its flamboyant flourishes generally are quieter, Lelio's movie also recalls the dazzling midcareer flight of Pedro Almodovar, when he moved away from subversive comedy into psychologically and structurally complex melodramas like The Flower of My Secret, All About My Mother and Talk to Her.

Some might even find echoes of John Cassavetes' great vehicles for Gena Rowlands. And few will miss the elegant strains of Hitchcock, both in themes of enigmatic female identity and the divided self, redolent of Vertigo, and in the cool visual compositions of cinematographer Benjamin Echazarreta, which capture the title figure against eye-catching features of Santiago architecture that suggest a heightened reality. Visually, the movie is a knockout from first frame — a magnificent view of Iguazu Falls, no less — to last, its use of color sumptuous.

Played by the remarkable transgender actress Daniela Vega, the central character, Marina Vidal, shows fortitude and self-possession that won't quit, regardless of the blows she's dealt. A singer in her late twenties making ends meet by waitressing, she's first seen performing in a nightclub act, tossing flirty glances at her partner Orlando (Francisco Reyes), and teasing him with song lyrics about their love being yesterday's news. But the mutual depth of feeling and sexual intoxication between them makes it abundantly clear that's not the case.

Working again with Gonzalo Maza, his co-screenwriter on Gloria and earlier films, Lelio conveys the couple's loving commitment in gorgeous scenes like a birthday meal at a Chinese restaurant, a rapturous dance-floor smooch, and blissful sex back at his apartment, where she has recently moved in. Orlando, a 57-year-old textile company executive with a marriage and family behind him, pledges a gift to Marina of a trip for two to the Iguazu Falls. However, he's misplaced the actual envelope containing the tickets, which becomes an intriguing MacGuffin in Marina's odyssey.

Orlando dies suddenly that same night after suffering an aneurism. Marina is stunned and shattered, but already at the hospital, her grief is ignored amid questions about their relationship from a doctor (Alejandro Goic) who insists on using male pronouns in reference to her, as well as the male birth name on her papers. A wound and bruising on Orlando's body from a fall while getting to the hospital result in a police report. A detective from the Sexual Offenses Investigation Unit (Amparo Noguera) operates from the assumption that prostitution or rape were involved before subjecting Marina to a degrading physical examination.

That's nothing, however, compared to the hostile indifference of Orlando's family to her pain. The dead man's son, Bruno (Nicolas Saavedra), who can't even remember Marina's name, informs her he wants her out of the apartment as fast as possible, refusing to hide his disgust at his father's choices. And Orlando's ex-wife Sonia (Aline Kuppenheim), a businesswoman festooned in power jewelry, barely contains the contempt behind her veneer of cold courtesy, before offering her money to get out of their lives. Only Orlando's brother Gabo (Luis Gnecco) shows her respect, though she reads his offer to give her some of her late partner's ashes as a bribe to keep her away from the funeral and wake.

Throughout these ordeals, Marina maintains her surface composure, while a slow-building rage churns inside her. Lelio and Echazarreta effectively place her under an emotional microscope. They study her against reflective surfaces and alienating backdrops like the amusement arcade connected to the café where she works, or the sleazy backroom of a club she wanders through, seeking self-punishing release. Such moments of rawness are interspersed with others of fantastical escape, like a dance scene in which she's transformed in her mind from a wreck to a glittering star, leading a choreographed formation routine.

One of the most striking interludes follows Marina's visit to her operatic voice coach (Sergio Hernandez), a father figure who reprimands her for not being serious enough about her talent. She tacks off afterward along the street into the face of a windstorm of supernatural force, while her voice continues to be heard singing the Giacomelli aria "Sposa son disprezzata," appropriately, about a scorned wife. Even when music choices might potentially have seemed too on-the-nose, like Aretha Franklin doing "(You Make Me Feel Like) A Natural Woman," Lelio uses them with audacious originality.

That extends also to the strange and beautiful score by experimental British electronica composer Matthew Herbert, working here in a more orchestral but no less distinctive vein.

The supporting ensemble (loaded with Larrain regulars) is studded with incisive character work, including from Trinidad Gonzalez and Nestor Cantillana as Marina's supportive stoner sister and her sweet flake of a husband, respectively. And despite relatively brief screen time augmented by ghostly subsequent reappearances, Reyes makes a strong impression as Orlando, of a man reborn through unexpected happiness; the bitter prejudice and lack of understanding his choices sparked become evident only after his death.

The movie's stunning revelation, however, is Vega, whether Marina is enduring disrespect to which she's become almost inured; experiencing horrific violence that cruelly transforms her into the freak other people see; unleashing her inner banshee; or shedding silent tears after finally seizing the right to mourn for which she has fought so hard. It's a transfixing performance, restrained and moving, with a gut-wrenching impact in one hypnotic scene where Marina is forced to pass as a man. Vega even does her own singing, with impressive ability.

No less than Paulina Garcia's astonishing work in Gloria, this is acting at its most fearless. The movie represents a huge leap in terms of trans narratives onscreen, but by any standard, it's a powerful drama of a woman whose suffering never dims her determination to keep moving forward.

Production companies: Fabula, Participant Media, Komplizen Film, Muchas Gracias, Septembro Cine
Distribution: Sony Pictures Classics
Cast: Daniela Vega, Francisco Reyes, Luis Gnecco, Aline Kuppenheim, Nicolas Saavedra, Amparo Noguera, Trinidad Gonzalez, Nestor Cantillana, Alejandro Goic, Antonia Zegers, Sergio Hernandez
Director: Sebastian Lelio
Screenwriters: Sebastian Lelio, Gonzalo Maza
Producers: Juan de Dios Larrain, Pablo Larrain, Sebastian Lelio, Gonzalo Maza
Executive producers: Jeff Skoll, Jonathan King, Rocio Jadue, Mariane Hartard, Ben von Dobeneck
Director of photography: Benjamin Echazarreta
Production designer: Estefania Larrain
Costume designer: Muriel Parra
Music: Matthew Herbert
Editor: Soledad Salfate

Casting: Moira Miller, Alejandra Alaff
Venue: Berlin Film Festival (competition)
Sales: Funny Balloons

104 minutes

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