Chilean filmmaker Sebastián Lelio‘s fifth feature, A Fantastic Woman (2017), tells the story of a young waitress and aspiring singer Marina (Daniela Vega), whose plans for the future with her boyfriend Orlando are interrupted by his sudden death. A trans woman, she is treated with suspicion by the doctors and police and is ostracised by the family, who struggle to accept her sexual identity and respect the feelings she and Orlando shared. Their actions force Marina to fight for the right to mourn the passing of her lover and rediscover within herself a strength of spirit.
From his debut feature, The Sacred Family (2005) in which a young man’s girlfriend imposes her presence on the family dynamic, to an older woman’s search for love in Gloria (2013), Lelio’s A Fantastic Woman continues to reveal a storyteller whose cinema has been influenced by an emphasis on female characters. Alongside his preceding film, which also had inclinations on the subject of identity, A Fantastic Woman is a continuation of his exploration of that theme but distinguished by the different contexts of these two characters at different stages of a journey – both lost within an empty present, yet one forward-looking, whilst the other looks back on the recent past.
In conversation with PopMatters, Lelio reflects on the inevitability of creative surrender, the storyteller’s dramatic quest, and cinema’s relationship to the filmmakers’ life story. He also discusses the themes of identity and transition that underly A Fantastic Woman, as well as acknowledging those uncertainties that create mystery.
Why filmmaking as a means of creative expression? Was there an inspirational or defining moment?
It was a gradual process, and the first path of access to a creative discipline or means of expression was through writing. I was writing when I was very young, and then I became interested in everything – I wanted to do photography, I wanted to act, I wanted to write plays. Then I wanted to film and paint, but I felt that film had a condition that reunites everything.
To make a film, you have to operate on many different levels, making all these different forms of expression converse, and so I just followed that intuition. I wasn’t a cinephile, I was just willing to discover film, then I got into film school, and it was instant love [laughs].
Interviewing director Larry Fessenden recently, he spoke of how a film is abandoned. Would you agree that by a certain point, you must accept the film you have and send it out into the world?
I understand the idea, but I don’t like the word. I think you can only be at peace once you have given everything. Only then can you surrender, which is different from abandoning it.
Your fellow compatriot Pablo Larraín, spoke of how you discover the film in the final cut, which contextualises the filmmaking process as a journey of discovery.
Oh yeah, of course, but it’s more dramatic than that because even when you are writing, you don’t know what you are writing about. You blindly follow intuition in the dark, which keeps changing even in the shooting. But it’s the nature of the filmmaking process for everything to keep changing and for you to ultimately understand what it is about. That’s when you surrender – when you have finally got it.
As time moves on, do you find yourself re-evaluating your films or rediscovering them in some way?
I feel them as pieces of life because a film corresponds to a moment. They are something for your biography, and you tend to talk about a certain period of your life in terms of the film you were making. So it gets stronger the older you get. You’ll say, for example, “Oh yes, that’s when I was making Gloria, that’s the Gloria era.”
But I rarely look at my films again. It’s once more like this idea of giving everything you have at that moment to a particular film, whether it is more or less successful. That stays there, and you can revisit and remember what you had at that moment because you somehow expressed yourself in what the film ended up being.
A Fantastic Woman presents the idea that it is possible to rediscover past desires and passions and to reconnect with our past selves. Extrapolating outward from this idea is the inference that we cannot possess life, rather, we must live for the moment, then, when it ends, let go.
Well, that’s a very interesting perspective. Of course, we cannot possess our loved ones because we don’t know what will happen tomorrow, and everything is in flux. Identity, which is one of the main subjects of A Fantastic Woman, is in flux within its main character, but it’s also in flux within the film itself, which keeps changing tonalities and genres. I should say the identity of reality is also in flux, and so everything is changing and mutating, oscillating and vibrating, and so I agree with you.
One of the main characteristics of Marina’s journey is that to move on, she’s clinging to this very basic right to say goodbye to a loved one because otherwise, she will remain trapped in something that she cannot even possess. It’s such a cruel situation to be trapped in.
Death deprives us of control of our identity, or rather, how we are remembered. A Fantastic Woman‘s drama looks at the selfishness that can be expressed by mourners, not always honouring the person they are grieving. This directly touches upon your observation of identity as a central theme.
I think that’s a really interesting idea. I understood that in the backstory of A Fantastic Woman, there is a very important transition, which is Marina’s transition in terms of sexual identity or gender. But then there is another huge transition, which is Orlando’s transition to death, whatever that is.
So in that sense, what you say resonates with the film because we are all transitioning. We are all changing, we are all becoming older, and our bodies change us. Some say they are renewed, but I don’t know. The world is a mystery.
This trans element exists in every dimension of reality, and that was very attractive as a subject while making A Fantastic Woman and quite revealing because I remember Daniela telling me that in a way, we are all trans. We are not fixed beings, we are not one thing, and we are constantly changing. The question is, why are the secondary characters so troubled by her presence? What is it that she has that is so dangerous – this capacity to transcend the limits of the masculine and feminine? What is it? It’s hard to understand, and I don’t get it.
Speaking with Carol Morley for The Falling (2014), she explained: “You take it 90 percent of the way, and it is the audience that finishes it. So the audience by bringing themselves: their experiences, opinions and everything else to a film is what completes it.” If the audience are the ones that complete [the film], does it follow that there is a transfer in ownership?
Film is a game of projections upon projections, and the projected image on the screen is a game of light and shadows. There is nothing there, it is the brain that is decoding those things. The film doesn’t have any decipherable kind of meaning if it’s not seen. It only happens in the spectator’s experience; it doesn’t exist anywhere else, even if we know films are being kept in cinematheques or wherever. The living experience of a film only happens when the film is seen and only within the spectator because they project their fears, desires, and fantasies upon those lights and shadows.
Interviewing filmmaker Christoph Behl he remarked to me: “You are evolving, and after the film, you are not the same person as you were before.” Is there a transformative aspect to the creative process, and does the experience of watching a film offer the audience a transformative experience through reflection?
Well, I do consider films like a spaceship that you refine to get to a different place as a person. Somehow you get involved with the subjects, questions, and problems because you want to be modified by them, you want to expand your understanding, and you want to evolve using the film as a device or a tool for that. That’s on a more personal level.
Then for the spectator, a film is this pure vibration that can affect you physically, emotionally, and intellectually and can maybe provide you with the possibility of a new perspective. When you change how you look at things, the things you are looking at change. So in that sense, yes, film has strong transformative power.