Film

‘A Fantastic Woman’ Is a Tale of Identities Half-formed, Half-believed

Unfortunately, Sebastian Lelio's foreign film-Oscar nominated drama about a transgender woman is also something of a half-shaped movie.

A Fantastic Woman
Sebastian Lelio

Sony Pictures Classics

02 Feb 2018 (US)

Other

The most romantic element of Chilean director Sebastian Lelio's A Fantastic Woman comes early and its absence is never quite filled. Orlando (Francisco Reyes), a 57-year-old Santiago businessman with a gentle sort of gravitas, is finishing up his day at the office and heading out to meet his girlfriend. Walking into a dinner club, he pauses to listen to the beautiful singer of the mediocre band. As she croons a tart little ballad about how "your love is like yesterday's newspaper", Orlando watches with eyes that simply drink her in like someone newly smitten. Then he starts mouthing the words she's singing. He has been here before. That's his much younger girlfriend and he clearly can't imagine tiring of her.

But this isn't his story. What Lelio and his co-writer Gonzalo Maza aim to explore is what happens to the singer, Marina (Daniela Vega), when Orlando suddenly dies the day after they have an evening out celebrating her birthday. In the fluorescent light of the hospital hallway and the harsh glare of the officer who keeps calling Marina "sir" and asking to see her ID where it still reads "Daniel", the story becomes one of identities half-formed and half-believed.

Unfortunately, the foreign film-Oscar nominated A Fantastic Woman is also something of a half-shaped movie. Lelio cues viewers in dramatic fashion to the plight of Marina, a trans woman who doesn't seem able to get her bearings after losing Orlando. A waitress without much of a social life, Marina's identity seems to have been wrapped up largely in her boyfriend's protective embrace, particularly once his family comes sniffing around, casting suspicious looks and asking how much longer she's planning on staying in the apartment. Meanwhile, a detective is asking leading questions about all the bruises and wounds that the hospital staff found on Orlando.

But simply applying pressure to Marina does not create a movie. Since the narrative has barely started before she's racing to the hospital, we don't have much evidence of Marina in her non-grief-stricken state. So the wary and guarded manner with which Vega edges oh so cautiously through the movie could be her normal character, a dazed reaction to tragedy, or neither. By giving her almost no close relationships and defining Marina almost entirely in reaction to the forces pressing in on her, Lelio doesn't allow the character enough air to breathe. Lyrical moments like the scene where Marina leans forward at an impossible sharp angle into a powerful wind, or where she fantasizes a choregraphed dance scene in a nightclub where she's gone for some self-destructive obliteration, potently visualize the strain she is under but no more.

There are some hints that A Fantastic Woman is attuned to a certain opacity in Marina's character. When Orlando's initially friendly and ultimately aggressive ex-wife Sonia (Aline Kuppenheim) first meets Marina, she says, "When I look at you, I don't know what I'm seeing," referring to Marina as a "chimera". But this could also just be another example of the family members' trans- and homophobia, which stands in for any deeper exploration of their relationship to Orlando.

While Lelio is not the most linear of storytellers, he has a deft hand when it comes to actors. Excepting a few flat notes from Vega, the performances in A Fantastic Woman are vivid throughout, much as they were in Gloria, Lelio's brilliant character study of late-blooming romance. But leaving so many plot strands dangling at the end of this promising but unfinished-feeling movie—the police investigation subplot just drifts away, and Marina's fight with Orlando's family is resolved in a very gimmicky fashion—strands the audience just as much as it does the performers.

5
Music


Books


Film


Recent
Music

Run the Jewels - "Ooh LA LA" (Singles Going Steady)

Run the Jewels' "Ooh LA LA" may hit with old-school hip-hop swagger, but it also frustratingly affirms misogynistic bro-culture.

Books

New Translation of Balzac's 'Lost Illusions' Captivates

More than just a tale of one man's fall, Balzac's Lost Illusions charts how literature becomes another commodity in a system that demands backroom deals, moral compromise, and connections.

Music

Protomartyr - "Processed by the Boys" (Singles Going Steady)

Protomartyr's "Processed By the Boys" is a gripping spin on reality as we know it, and here, the revolution is being televised.

Music

Go-Go's Bassist Kathy Valentine Is on the "Write" Track After a Rock-Hard Life

The '80s were a wild and crazy time also filled with troubles, heartbreak and disappointment for Go-Go's bass player-guitarist Kathy Valentine, who covers many of those moments in her intriguing dual project that she discusses in this freewheeling interview.

Music

New Brain Trajectory: An Interview With Lee Ranaldo and Raül Refree

Two guitarists, Lee Ranaldo and Raül Refree make an album largely absent of guitar playing and enter into a bold new phase of their careers. "We want to take this wherever we can and be free of genre restraints," says Lee Ranaldo.

Books

'Trans Power' Is a Celebration of Radical Power and Beauty

Juno Roche's Trans Power discusses trans identity not as a passageway between one of two linear destinations, but as a destination of its own.

Music

Yves Tumor Soars With 'Heaven to a Tortured Mind'

On Heaven to a Tortured Mind, Yves Tumor relishes his shift to microphone caressing rock star. Here he steps out of his sonic chrysalis, dons some shiny black wings and soars.

Music

Mike Patton and Anthony Pateras' tētēma Don't Hit the Mark on 'Necroscape'

tētēma's Necroscape has some highlights and some interesting ambiance, but ultimately it's a catalog of misses for Mike Patton and Anthony Pateras.

Music

M. Ward Offers Comforting Escapism on 'Migration Stories'

Although M. Ward didn't plan the songs on Migration Stories for this pandemic, they're still capable of acting as a balm in these dark hours.

Music

Parsonsfield Add Indie Pop to Their Folk on 'Happy Hour on the Floor'

Happy Hour on the Floor is a considerable departure from Parsonsfield's acclaimed rustic folk sound signaling their indie-pop orientation. Parsonsfield remind their audience to bestow gratitude and practice happiness: a truly welcomed exaltation.

Music

JARV IS... - "House Music All Night Long" (Singles Going Steady)

"House Music All Night Long" is a song our inner, self-isolated freaks can jive to. JARV IS... cleverly captures how dazed and confused some of us may feel over the current pandemic, trapped in our homes.

Music

All Kinds of Time: Adam Schlesinger's Pursuit of Pure, Peerless Pop

Adam Schlesinger was a poet laureate of pure pop music. There was never a melody too bright, a lyrical conceit too playfully dumb, or a vibe full of radiation that he would shy away from. His sudden passing from COVID-19 means one of the brightest stars in the power-pop universe has suddenly dimmed.

Music

Folkie Eliza Gilkyson Turns Up the Heat on '2020'

Eliza Gilkyson aims to inspire the troops of resistance on her superb new album, 2020. The ten songs serve as a rallying cry for the long haul.

Music

Human Impact Hit Home with a Seismic First Album From a Veteran Lineup

On their self-titled debut, Human Impact provide a soundtrack for this dislocated moment where both humanity and nature are crying out for relief.

Music

Monophonics Are an Ardent Blast of True Rock 'n' Soul on 'It's Only Us'

The third time's the charm as Bay Area soul sextet Monophonics release their shiniest record yet in It's Only Us.

Film

'Slay the Dragon' Is a Road Map of the GOP's Methods for Dividing and Conquering American Democracy

If a time traveler from the past wanted to learn how to subvert democracy for a few million bucks, gerrymandering documentary Slay the Dragon would be a superb guide.

Music

Bobby Previte / Jamie Saft / Nels Cline: Music from the Early 21st Century

A power-trio of electric guitar, keyboards, and drums takes on the challenge of free improvisation—but using primarily elements of rock and electronica as strongly as the usual creative music or jazz. The result is focused.

Books

Does Inclusivity Mean That Everyone Does the Same Thing?

What is the meaning of diversity in today's world? Russell Jacoby raises and addresses some pertinent questions in his latest work, On Diversity.

Reviews
Collapse Expand Reviews
Features
Collapse Expand Features
PM Picks
Collapse Expand Pm Picks

© 1999-2020 PopMatters.com. All rights reserved.
PopMatters is wholly independent, women-owned and operated.