A Fantastic Woman

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In Chile, the film's title is Una mujer fantástica.  The adjustment for English-speaking audiences seems insignificant, but it still shifts slightly the centrality of Daniela Vega's character, Marina Vidal.  As originally framed by co-writer and director Sebastián Lelio, she is in fact A Woman, Fantastic

Yet, in films ranging from Wonder Woman (dir Patty Jenkins, 2017) to The French Lieutenant's Woman (dir Karel Reisz, 1981) to Woman of the Year (dir George Stevens, 1942), the woman-ness of title characters is rarely so much the subject of their respective films as it is here.  More often, it is a mere identifier: the emphasis is intended to be on the actions or character of the film's leading woman, rather than her gender as ascribed by the title.  After all, in Women on the Verge of a Nervous Breakdown (dir Pedro Almodóvar, 1988), the attention is on the Nervous Breakdown; perhaps even on The Verge.  It is not about whether those people who are potentially about to suffer emotional collapses are or are not Women.

In both the title and the action of A Fantastic Woman, Lelio invokes a constant tension between Marina's gender and society's interrogation of it - and, indeed, the film's own attention to these interrogations.  But the extent to which he intends to make his audience complicit in these acts is always ambiguous.  In one notable instance, roughly one-third of the way into the film, Marina drives to a significant appointment.  Accompanying her on the ride are the soothing strains of Aretha Franklin's '(You Make Me Feel Like) A Natural Woman'.  She turns the radio up, singing along at times, haltingly.

In any other film, such a moment might pass as a piece of mere atmosphere, perhaps even entirely innocuously: yet, by this stage, Lelio's film has made its audience as sensitive to potential microaggressions as Marina is.  We begin to wonder, in fact, whether the film's invocation of this song is itself a form of microaggression against Marina.  Having become sensitised to the use of words such as 'like' and 'natural', we question how much the film itself wishes to bestow womanhood upon Marina as if it were a gift, rather than allowing us to take the place of her dead lover, Orlando Onetto, in accepting her as she is, unquestioningly. 

If this womanhood is indeed, in Lelio's eyes, such a gift, then it is undoubtedly a gift which no other of the film's characters is willing to part with.  After Orlando's death, nearly every character with whom Marina has any significant interaction will, at some point, question or (at best) highlight her gender.  This unrelenting dynamic is instinctively encapsulated in a single poetic moment of the film, in which Marina walks down a street, the wind blowing in her face.  As it continues to push into her, she begins to slow down; eventually, it becomes so powerful that she can only lean into it, doing so just enough to keep her from being flung backwards.

Although specifically focussed on how the extended Onetto family and those concerned with it react against Marina, A Fantastic Woman is, at its heart, a film intended to leave its audience unsettled about how larger society views identities and affects those whose identities it questions.  Whether this means that the film itself constitutes a film of identity is less clear.  The idea that a single film might be expected to stand in for the lived experiences of any identity, whether one of gender or sexuality or race, across cultures and continents, is perhaps doomed to absurdity: indeed, the very notion that one film could or should represent an entire group of people may well be a microaggression in and of itself.  And the deeper point on which this issue tenuously balances pertains to whether a film of identity (if such a thing truly exists) should be intended to inhabit the lived experience of one or more people claiming that identity, or whether it can only depict how the rest of the world views that identity and reacts towards people of that identity, whether negatively or positively.

Arguably, Lelio's film allows us to glimpse far more of that external view than of an internal, personal one.  Returning to the title, it appears to be an entirely outside view of Marina that would label her as a specifically fantastic woman, rather than this being an inherent quality that she is imbued with, or that she might claim for herself.  Left otherwise uncertain of the title's intentions, we are left to decide as individuals what it is about Marina that makes her so fantastic.  Is it that she is able to endure an unrelenting stream of abuse and degradation?  Or is it simply how she is glimpsed through the eyes of her lover, as he was in life or as he is subsequently imagined?  Is it because of her beautiful singing voice, or her pursuit of a performance career that must somehow sit in tandem with interrogations by police, a tiring service industry job and temporary homelessness?

In the end, the exhausting interrogations to which Marina is continuously subjected evoke an empathy that makes us feel pity for her: she becomes the embodiment of the holy, saintly, flower-festooned, quasi-martyrological image in which she is depicted in some of the film's artwork.  Yet, this pity is arguably the film's substitute for an actual understanding of her.  Returning to the image of Marina battling into the wind, keeping her feet against the violence of an unknown, uncomprehending force, it may be that this force not only represents the aggressions of those who wish her ill, but also the ministrations of those who feel as though they are on her side, who wish simply to 'understand' her.  This force pushing against her is, in fact, the sense of why she needs to be understood at all; of why she cannot simply exist as A Woman, fantastic or otherwise.  If the wind is a question, then that question is: 'who are you?'

But it is not Marina's responsibility to answer; she leans into the wind, and then she carries on.

Marc David Jacobs
freelance arts worker
5th March 2018

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