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New Release Review - A FANTASTIC WOMAN

A FANTASTIC WOMAN review
Following her lover's death, a transitioning woman faces prejudice from his family and wider society.







Review by Eric Hillis

Directed by: Sebastián Lelio

Starring: Daniela Vega, Francisco Reyes, Luis Gnecco, Aline Küppenheim

A FANTASTIC WOMAN poster


In 2016 we got three films from Chilean filmmaker Pablo Larrain - Catholic abuse drama The Club, and biopics Jackie and Neruda. In 2018 we'll be gifted three movies from another Chilean director, Sebastián Lelio, best known to international audiences for his breakout fourth feature, 2013's Gloria. This summer we'll see Lelio make his English language bow with the Rachel Weisz headlined lesbian drama Disobedience, while later we'll receive his Hollywood debut as he remakes Gloria with Julianne Moore in the title role.


A FANTASTIC WOMAN

First up however is A Fantastic Woman, Lelio's Santiago set drama of societal and institutional prejudice. A waitress by day and lounge singer by night, the transsexual Marina (a captivating turn from singer Daniela Vega) is in a loving relationship with Orlando (Francisco Reyes), an affluent man three decades her senior, and has just moved into his apartment. One night Orlando suffers a heart attack and is rushed to hospital, where he passes away.

Before she has time to process the loss of her lover, Marina is questioned by police, who want to know why Orlando's body is marked with bruises (obtained when he fell down the stairs of his apartment complex). A well-meaning but intrusive social worker hounds Marina, incorrectly believing she may have been the victim of an abusive relationship. Save for a kindly brother (Neruda star Luis Gnecco), Orlando's surviving family members display explicit contempt for Marina, barring her from his funeral and demanding she leave his apartment.


A FANTASTIC WOMAN

There's something compelling about watching characters negotiate incredibly stressful scenarios, and it's a template that's served recent movies like The Measure of a Man and Two Days, One Night well. Such a narrative runs the danger of entering the territory of misery porn, allowing a privileged audience to wallow in a movie protagonist's misfortune for 90 minutes before deciding which restaurant to dine at. Thankfully that's not the case with A Fantastic Woman. It's a film that inspires outrage from its audience at the treatment of its protagonist, but it never asks us to pity her. Strong and defiant throughout, if brittle within, Marina is a figure of inspiration, and you don't leave the film feeling sorry for her, rather you exit wishing you had an ounce of her fortitude.

Despite the indignities she's subjected to, Marina remains calm and collected throughout, saving her rage for the punching bag she keeps in her apartment. She maintains a public face of quiet dignity, while those around her are losing theirs. Some of the prejudice she faces is explicit, even violent in one instance. Perhaps more damaging are the blows dealt by ignorance rather than malice, like the abasement she suffers at the hands of a social worker, a liberal equivalent of John Wayne's misguided saviour of The Searchers. A telling scene comes when, during a medical examination, the male doctor asks the female social worker to leave the room before Marina drops her towel.


A FANTASTIC WOMAN

There are a couple of moments in which Lelio throws subtlety out the window - Aretha Franklin's ' A Natural Woman' playing on a car stereo; a slo-mo shot of Marina struggling to walk during a storm - but otherwise he tells the story in a naturalistic, unobtrusive fashion, letting his inspiring protagonist take centre stage. Lelio makes the commendable decision to never expose Marina's genitalia, the nature of which is a question posed by the film's more hurtful supporting characters. We may be curious, but ultimately it's an irrelevance, and none of our business. Marina is a woman, and yes, she's fantastic.

A Fantastic Woman is in UK/ROI cinemas March 2nd.




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