A FANTASTIC WOMAN
Daniela Vega as Marina
Francisco Reyes as Orlando
Luis Gnecco as Gabo
Aline Küppenheim as Sonia
Nicolás Saavedra as Bruno
Amparo Noguera as Adriana
This Oscar-nominated Chilean drama almost snagged a Best Actress nod for transgender newcomer Daniela Vega. Imagine Cyd Charisse poured into the body of Gene Kelly and you’ll have an inkling why the 28-year-old is the subject of so much hooplah. She can act. She can sing (whether lounge-bar ditties or Handel arias). And her body seems permanently ready to dance.
In one of the film’s standout scenes her character, Marina, tilts (at an almost 45-degree angle) to avoid being shoved back by the wind. That’s it. That’s her one move. Yet this surreal moment contains multitudes. A Fantastic Woman asks us to embrace all things fluid and, thanks to the superstar at its centre, it’s a pleasure to go with the flow.
Marina is a singer and waitress in Santiago whose life goes tits up when her wealthy, much older lover Orlando (Francisco Reyes) has an aneurysm. The authorities and Orlando’s family patronise, pathologise and persecute Marina. Meanwhile, she notices a mysterious set of keys in Orlando’s car. Will solving the riddle of these keys improve her life? She makes the ultimate sacrifice in order to find out.
The sublime sequence that follows is what you might call steamy. Jacques Tourneur in Cat People; Hitchcock in Vertigo; Almodóvar in All About My Mother: they lure us into unchartered territory, and 43-year-old director Sebastián Lelio does the same. He forces us to feel as well as see that clothes maketh this woman. It’s very sexy. And very playful. (Abandon hope all ye in search of conventional thrills).
If only sugar daddy Orlando was more interesting. He keeps popping up as a ghost and we’re supposed to find him adorable. But the questions that might deepen our sense of him never get asked (would he be attracted to Marina if she was his own age?). It’s a tad grating, too, that aside from Marina there are no three-dimensional female characters. Certainly none with an attractive personality. Marina’s upright. The women around her are uptight. Hmm… How would we feel about a movie in which a white person, having transitioned to “blackness”, was presented as superior in every way to surrounding dark-skinned folk?
Luckily I’ve seen Lelio’s debut, Gloria, so I know he doesn’t view cis females as the enemy. And because so much about this film is truly fantastic (including the sumptuous score by Britain’s Matthew Herbert), I’ll be delighted if it wins the Oscar for Best Foreign Language Film.
Even if it doesn’t, Vega will make history on Sunday when she becomes the first transgender actor to present an award. A man snarls at Marina: “Who do you think you are? Julia Roberts?” Vega, Hollywood’s latest pretty woman, is living a dream that may change the face of beauty for ever.
Review by Charlotte O'Sullivan, Evening Standard