Friday 2 March 2018

"A Fantastic Woman" (Catholic Herald 01/03/18)

The rapid change the movie business is presently undergoing is such that some believed 2018 might have witnessed the Academy Awards embracing their first transgender acting nominee. The performer in question was Daniela Vega, for the Chilean drama A Fantastic Woman (***, 15, 104 mins), and that she eventually missed out should imply no failure on her part: dodderier Academy voters have always been more comfortable around Meryl, that’s all. Director Sebastián Lelio has followed up Gloria, his exhilarating 2013 study of an older woman cutting loose, with a not dissimilar project. Again, he nudges a marginalised figure into the spotlight, inviting her to shine for a couple of hours.

For much of that time, ironically, Vega’s Marina Vidal is struggling to keep from being snuffed out. A waitress and nightclub singer, her scant security comes under extended threat after her married lover drops dead from an aneurysm. The deceased’s relatives regard Marina as a nasty detail to be brushed aside: not just the other woman, but – in the eyes of the clan’s macho men – fundamentally other. The police, equally, view her with suspicion from the moment one officer clocks the (male) name on her outdated ID. Without soapboxing, the film reshapes into a quest for identity – one woman’s battle to cling onto something of the man she loved, while avoiding being written out of the picture altogether.

Festival-circuit notices have scented an Almodóvar influence, and certain images back that up: at one point, Marina is reduced to a standstill on the street by a sudden gale, just another of the forces raging against her. Yet Lelio is less inclined towards the melodramatic than he is towards the sociological. Whether we find ourselves in Marina’s car or her dressing room, this notably reflective work strives to hold a mirror up to straight society’s apprehensions around all things trans. When the deceased’s ex tells Marina “When I look at you, I don’t know what I’m seeing”, it sounds truthful, and harsher than anybody was expecting.

If the film isn’t quite as arresting as Gloria, perhaps that’s because watching a heroine trying to hold it together is less dynamic than watching one flying off the rails. Yet Lelio has overseen at least one quiet representational triumph in casting trans as trans, and then directing Vega to play frazzled this comprehensively, and well: in shot almost throughout, she makes a persuasive case for Marina’s existence and happiness, her right to be whoever she wants to be. It’s not a film of badges or labels, then, nor one seeking to wave flags or placards – just a subtly affecting expression of empathy, sent into a world that could do with a few more of those right now.

A Fantastic Woman opens in selected cinemas from today.

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