Tuesday, March 6, 2018

A Fantastic Woman

"A Fantastic Woman" is a terrible title. In Spanish, where the phrase is much more idiomatic, the title apparently plays - certainly more clearly than it does in English - on the idea of the fantastical woman, and of the fantasised woman. Both notions are interesting, and key to understanding the film, which, in its brash and expressionist mode, riffs on those concepts in an endearingly head-on, mulish way. In so doing, the movie offers up a bracing, heroic portrayal of a transwoman in combat, but it also ends up fetishising her gender identity, making for an ambivalent depiction.

The film centres - quite literally so, in the sense that it places Daniela Vega wham-bam in the middle of its frame - on Marina Vidal, a transwoman whose older cis-male partner, Orlando, dies suddenly one night, leaving her homeless, without any legal claims to mourn him, and at odds with his transphobic family. Throughout the film, as Marina fights to get her dog back, attend her lover's funeral, and be recognised in her gender identity by his kin, Sebastian Lelio presents her as a kind of gunslinger in a Western, in a series of face-offs against various foes, standing up for what she knows is right. In between these bouts, Marina is shown jabbing a punch-bag, or walking alone, presented in long backwards hand-held shots that frame her determination and make her a hero. While she is banished to the margins of the world she exists in, in this film she commands the centre-ground, ceding on-screen territory to no-one. 

There is, though, a queasiness in the discrepancy between the way other characters view Marina and the way the film presents her. The film rightly lambasts its secondary characters for deadnaming her, misgendering her, or reducing her to her physicality. In their brutality, Orlando's family treat Marina like a monster, at one point kidnapping her and strapping her face together with tape, in an act that functions as a degradation but also, clearly, as a belittling comment on the way she is seen to have created herself a new physique. The tape, roughly stretched across her face, turns her nose up and squashes her features, making a monster of her. 

At the same time, the film performs a not wholly dissimilar exercise in the way it presents Marina as a magnificent beast. In an extraordinary scene (which, in a scarcely believable coup de theatre, nods to Jurassic Park (!)), Marina climbs onto the roof of the car belonging to Orlando's family, crashing and stomping above the people trapped inside it, like a vengeful monster. It's a positive depiction for sure, glorying in Marina's indefatigability, her resourcefulness, her self-belief - but it's still the other side of the same coin. It objectifies and sensationalises Marina's physicality, making her a species of creature. Marina is never dehumanised, in part because of Daniela Vega's controlled, enigmatic performance, but Lelio's film is so expressionistic, so full-on, that its candid acts of valiance make an object out of Marina's resilience. 

We see this too in the way the film presents Marina's nudity, which ties in to the film's work on the fantasised being and the fantastical being. In one measured, disquieting scene, a female doctor asks Marina to strip in order to take photographs of her body as part of the investigation into Orlando's death. A male doctor is also present, which introduces a level of discomfort into the interaction. The doctors are unyielding, and Lelio's camera doesn't blink: the full tension of the moment is sounded, so that we feel how othered and objectified Marina is; how she isn't allowed to present herself on her own terms. There's sensitivity there, but a touch of prurience too: this accords with how brash the film is in general, how overt and generally full-blooded it is, in its script and its visual cues. But in a later scene, where Marina's (partial) nudity isn't imposed on her by one person, Lelio seems to be playing games, which sensationalise Marina's gender for the viewer. 

In this scene, Marina has to find out what Orlando had left in his locker at a male sauna he patronises. To this effect, she must go to the sauna herself; therefore, in a scene that is uncomfortable because of the way it presents a reversal of 'passing', she has to present as male in order to enter the building. Tricked out in just a towel across her waist, with her incipient breasts registering only as a 'male' chest and with her hair tied backwards, Marina manages to enter the building unperturbed. But this scene, which Lelio after all devised, has a somewhat leering tone, a rather jesting flavour, revelling in Marina's liminal aspect, and using her physicality as a plot point or ploy. 

Marina's descent into the depths of Orlando's sauna, to recuperate a secret that he had left behind, plays I think on the legend of Orpheus and Eurydice, a fantastical woman of legend and her departed lover. There is much in the film that pertains to the register of hell and devils: Marina's dog is called Diablo, and scene after scene shows her descending from a point of height - to help her lover after he has fallen downstairs; driving into an underground car-park to do battle with Orlando's ex-wife; visiting the sauna below ground. There's a preponderance of red, too, in many of these scenes, playing on a register of the infernal. In the end, Marina sees a glimpse of her dead lover, Orlando-Orpheus, before he disappears from view. In the sauna, the near-naked Marina-Eurydice is clearly passing through a land that is not hers, that is ruled by other people; there are codes and instructions for her mission into this Hades. This adoption of the legend serves to champion Marina, but I think it also robs her of agency and plays too strongly on her physical presentation. 

Ultimately, A Fantastical Woman is an unendingly bold, combative, interesting, often visually marvellous film, pulsating with ideas - and its odd, unsubtle, often cheering, sometimes clunky discourse on its protagonist, is one of many aspects to crunch over in one's mind long after the lights have gone up.

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