On this week’s Fresh Films, we talk about the Oscar winner for best foreign language film. Transcript below.
[Fernanda Carreño - “Periódico de Ayer”]
Marco: So when we saw this movie we had a very interesting person sitting behind us, would you agree Elliot?
Elliot: Yeah she seemed like a nice woman, maybe not A Fantastic Woman, but a nice woman.
Marco: She had a very interesting insight into this move.
Elliot: That it wasn’t about being trans. It was about the feelings?
Marco: Yes, it was about the feelings. The film that directly addressed transphobia was not about being trans, it was about the feelings.
Marco: Hello, and welcome to Fresh Films. We’re a podcast devoted to new movies that have just come out in Evanston. I’m Marco Cartolano.
Elliot: And I’m Elliot Kronsberg.
Marco: Today we’re going to be talking about the Chilean film A Fantastic Woman. It stars Daniela Vega and and is directed by Sebastián Lelio. The producers have a bit of a pedigree. We got Pablo Larraín and Maren Ade, the directors of Jackie and Toni Erdmann respectively.
Elliot: I’ve been really excited about this film. Especially when I heard that Pablo Larraín was producing it. I really like Jackie and I really like Neruda. So it was exciting. I guess you could say it was kinda like Jackie. They’re both about this young woman having to deal with the aftermath of her significant other’s death. In one case, we’re talking about Jackie Kennedy and the death of President Kennedy. The other case we’re talking about just a middle-aged businessman and this girl Marina.
Marco: One of the more talked about elements of this film is that Marina is actually a trans woman, played by Daniela Vega who is actually a trans actress. Currently there’s a lot of discussion that we should start casting trans roles with actors who are actually trans. And she has received quite a bit of acclaim for her performance in this movie. So it’s a bit of an important film in that element. So this film is about Daniela Vega’s character, who is a waitress and a singer. She has this middle-aged boyfriend.
Elliot: Who’s sort of distanced from his family. It seems like he’s been married a couple of times. He’s got an older child who’s probably older than Marina and he’s also got a seven year-old daughter. So we get a little bit of his backstory without really getting to know him that much. We start with him. The first couple of shots are all him and we don’t really know how this film’s going to tackle it because you see this middle aged guy walk into a nightclub. He’s watching this singer. If you’ve seen any of the promotional material you know that the singer is the star of the film, but you think maybe we’re going to see them have a meet-cute, meet for the first time-go out, fall in love. But, we soon learn that they know each other and actually we’re seeing their last night together.
Marco: The boyfriend actually has an aneurysm and dies that night. That creates some complications for our main actress. She has to watch as her boyfriend’s family doesn’t want her to go to the funeral. She has to deal with the police who think that she might have played a hand in his death. She has to deal with whether or not she has to move from his apartment. It’s a very character-focused film. After the first couple of shots with the boyfriend it really is focused on Vega’s character throughout. And she does a really good job and she’s both a very humane person and you can understand how she’s feeling throughout. But she also has stubbornness to her. You can tell a lot of the pain she’s been going through at this point and you can sympathize. Especially because there are a few exceptions, but a lot of the people she’s dealing with treat her horribly. Partially because she’s trans. Also because she might have broken the family up. Elliot: It’s really interesting that most of the characters we encounter who tend to treat her poorly, they always act like they’re trying to help her at first before basically humiliating her. First there’s a police in the hospital where she’s just found out that her boyfriend, Orlando, has died and she’s waiting for his brother to come help her and a police officer approaches her. And asks to see her ID and makes a very big deal about her name. Because she goes by Marina Vidal but it’s not on her official identification card yet…
Marco: Yeah her identification card is her dead name.
Elliot:..And there’s this whole back and forth. And I thought that it was just so tense. I almost felt like I was going to get a little emotional because this guy was just pressing her so hard when it wasn’t necessary. There was another really disturbing part where she’s at the police station and you never really get whether they’re questioning her. He might have physically assaulted or abused her and that she was defending herself. Or if they think that she tried to hurt him unprovoked. So she ends up in this police precinct and they want to give her a physical exam.
Marco: But it doesn’t explicitly ever answer the question as to whether or not she has gone through reconstructive surgery.
Elliot: And everyone is so obsessed about it. There’s this part where the person giving her the exam, a man for some reason, asks her to lower-she’s wearing like a hospital gown almost and the examiner who's taking picture for evidence asks her to lower her top and she does. And you can tell that she’s uncomfortable. I mean, who wouldn’t be uncomfortable standing in front of this strange guy wearing a hospital gown only covering below your waist. And then he asks her to take off the hospital gown to show the bottom half of her body. And just in that moment I feel like there’s so much tension because as the audience I kind of want to know… Marco: Whether she’s gotten bottom surgery or not. Just cause you want to understand this character you’re seeing on a film.
Elliot: Exactly and actually the film does a really sort of interesting thing where they never show you. Every shot where she’s not wearing bottoms it’s somehow covered. Either it’s obscured by the physical camera in that physical exam scene or there’s a really cool part where she’s sitting naked on her bed and she’s got a face mirror that she’s holding between her legs and you just see her face. I kind of took it as a metaphor of it doesn’t matter what sort of genitalia she has, she’s Marina Vidal. She’s a person. The film isn’t very subtle, but I think it’s creative in the ways it explores this topic and this character.
Marco: I want to move on to something that I thought was actually kind of interesting about the way the film and the story about it was layed out. It’s not exposition-heavy at all. Most of what you learn about their backstory or about their lives it’s handled kind of true to life in that they’ll just talk about and you’ll get the glimpses of it. You never see a flashback to Marina and Orlando’s first meeting, they just talk a bit about what Orlando was doing when he left his family and moved with Marina. We don’t learn a lot about Marina’s past life before Orlando so she’s a bit of an enigma actually, but I think that it diverts the expectation that trans stories should focus so much on the coming out process and less on the current “this is how I’m living, post coming out,” and that’s something that I think sets it apart from other stories focusing on LGBTQ+ characters. That it cares less about the coming out and the transition and more about her current state and how she’s feeling in relation to her life. I want to transition now to the visual style, the cinematography of the film. Elliot briefly mentioned this but there is a motif of mirrors throughout the film. Of Marina looking at herself through mirrors. Sometimes its a bathroom mirror, or a mirror in a rehearsal room or backstage room. One time it was this floppy mirror that two guys were lifting and she just sees the kind of distorted image of herself. The most poignant use of a mirror is the scene where she has a mirror in between her legs. I definitely think that this is a theme of her looking at herself and seeing a woman. Another visual motif, or regular thing that you saw throughout the film, was a lot of focus on her face a lot of tracking shot of her walking and the camera was pointed straight to her face. I think it grounds you in her perspective very well. Arguably it could have been a bit too much of that in that you sometimes wanted a different shot for a scene, but still a very effective tool for creating empathy.
Elliot: I think it might have been a move to minimize an objectified view. If we’re always looking at her face, we’re always looking at her as a character and not really focusing on her body or her body language which in a movie that isn’t just going to be playing in Chile, but it’s going to be playing around the world. It’s getting recognition in North America, in Europe, in Asia, in Australia. You kind of have to control how the audience sees your character a little bit. I mean I know we’re in a Roland Barthes “death of the author” postmodernism here, but I think the shots focusing on the face were very specific and purposeful.
Marco: And finally, the film for the most part is more on the realism side of filmmaking, but there are glimpses of that more expressionistic style. There are scenes where Orlando appears in the shot even though he has died to signify his presence. There’s a scene where the wind just gets unbelievably harsh and is pushing her back at one of her low points. And you have finally, this scene at a bar that transitions to this discoey, flashy…
Elliot: I know exactly what you scene you’re talking about, it was one of my favorite scenes in the film. It just seemed to come out of nowhere and there was this lack of expression in her face like she was just going through the motions. But it only made me kind of love it more. It was such a weird scene and I actually thought it might end right there. It didn’t. Music is really important to the film because Marina is a singer and a dancer and the first time we see her, she’s singing in a nightclub. Her confidant is her vocal coach. They use several recognizable American songs throughout the film, but the one that stuck out was Aretha Franklin’s “(You Make Me Feel Like) A Natural Woman” because I’ve never seen it used in a film discussing trans people, but the title itself is kind of on the nose. And to finally see it in a movie where you got this woman, it was kind of weird just because it kind of comes out of nowhere.
[Aretha Franklin - “(You Make Me Feel Like) A Natural Woman”]
Marco: Now, let’s transition to our final thoughts on this. I’ll go first. So, this film is a small film, plot-wise. It doesn’t end on the heavy climax. It just kind of ends at a point that feels like it’s the right point to end. So it’s definitely a pretty small, slice-of-life story, but definitely a very well-done film with a great lead performance that is about a community, an identity that is still very marginalized and we’re still trying to empathize with and learn about their experiences. So, in that regard, I would recommend this film to anyone who is curious as to the sort of life or experiences a trans person might face. People who have been clamoring for more accurate casting decisions in films, I would definitely recommend this as well. Would you recommend this film?
Elliot: I would definitely recommend this film. This is definitely a very well-made film, very empathetic film, and really an emotional film, for anybody. There’s one scene where she goes into a mixed spa. The men’s side and the women’s side are separate. And she goes into the women’s side with no problem. And, when no one’s looking, she just walks into the men’s side, and she takes off her robe. It was such an odd scene because everything that she had worked for she kind of had to give up for a second to get what she wanted. That hit me hard. When people call for representation in the film industry, this is one aspect of it: Having actual trans actors play trans characters. What it lacks in subtlety it makes up for in heart and technical skill. The cinematography is beautiful. They incorporate all sorts of bright colors, and we see a lot of scenes at night with this beautiful lighting - at nightclubs and street-lights, even in the spa. I highly recommend it to anyone who wants to see a good film and doesn’t mind subtitles… because it is in Spanish.
Marco: I’m Marco Cartolano.
Elliot: And I’m Elliot Kronsberg.
Marco: This has been Fresh Films from North by Northwestern Audio. We’re available in Apple Podcasts. You can also find us at northbynorthwestern.com under the Audio Section. See you.
[Matthew Herbert - “Queen”]