Laura Blanco is a filmmaker, film and TV critic and theorist based in Barcelona. A member of the ACCEC (Associació Catalana de Crítics i Escriptors Cinematogràfics), Laura is currently developing her thesis on the baroque in contemporary cinema.
‘A Fantastic Woman’ amazes through its simplicity. The latest masterpiece from Sebastian Lelio (‘Gloria’- 2013), it’s the Chilean big bet for the 90th Academy Awards and a deep reflection on sexuality, prejudices and personal identity.
Starring Daniela Vega (1), one and a half hours is enough to tell the story of Marina Vidal, a transsexual woman who loses her boyfriend, Orlando (Francisco Reyes), from an aneurysm, after which, nothing is the same. Marina faces a long path as she tries to reconnect with herself, not only by coming to terms with her grief, but also by enduring a turbulent relationship with Orlando’s annoying family as they try to push her away from her boyfriend’s funeral. His is a tough farewell within the complex society of Chile, a country still reluctant to accept transsexuality as a common gender condition (2).
We can’t understand Marina Vidal without her relationship with Orlando. He is not only the core of her life (3), but also of her identity. When Marina looks at him, she sees herself as a whole woman. It doesn’t matter that her sexual organs are missing, Orlando touches them anyway, and she feels pleasure as if everything were in its original place. Unlike the rest of the world, when he looks at Marina he doesn’t see a gender or a label, he sees a person, fighting to be recognised. Through their constant looks at each other they find their own reflections: Orlando feels younger and in love again while the femininity of Marina bursts in her chest like a waterfall.
When Orlando dies, the mirror in which Marina was looking into fades as well. It no longer gives that same look back at her: she is now facing a world constantly trying to turn her down. And it does, not only through Orlando’s family but also through an old-fashioned bureaucratic system that doubts her, suspecting she might be a battered woman. The bruises on Orlando’s body the night he died are only an excuse to justify the prejudices of a world that needs to examine, undress and expose her body into a cold white wall and point at her with an accusing finger, as if she was a freak or a weirdo. But she won’t stop looking at the camera with her head held high, sometimes against the worst of the winds.
(1) Daniela Vega is a very active profile in Chile, fighting for the rights of transsexuals. (2) We can’t forget, the Gender Identity Law in Chile has been in process since May 2013 without reaching a final approval. (3) In fact, the movie opens with the character of Orlando. Introduced as a wellbeing man that owns a textile industry and he is regular of a mixed sauna. His death will lead the camera POV to Marina, the authentic protagonist of the story.
Marina’s eyes are a powerful tool for Lelio, who uses them very wisely to constantly point at the audience. While in ‘A Fantastic Woman’, Vega remains aligned with the point of view of the camera most of the time, in Xavier Dolan’s ‘Laurence Anyways’ it is the camera that collects all the eyes pointing at Laurence (Melvil Poupaud). Through this mechanism, we discover Marina’s reverse angle, Orlando, or what is the same: herself. She stands in front of the camera, meanwhile in ‘Laurence Anyways’, Laurence hides behind it (at least, at the beginning of the film when he’s still a man). This resistance to the camera is built over Daniela Vega’s shoulders and her amazing personality constantly doubted and needing to be reaffirmed in the reflection or the mirror. When Marina seems lost, she sees Orlando, like a bright light at the end of a tunnel. When she goes to say goodbye to his corpse, it is the shadow of Orlando that leads her to that final room where they will split apart forever, the room in which she will look at him again, one last time.
Once she has moved away and started a new life, it is the mirror that stands in front of the new image of Marina before she leaves to perform a concert. This constant need for reaffirmation continues in ‘Laurence Anyways’. When Laurence is asked if it it was worth becoming a woman as it meant (his male self) lost the love of his life, the answer is: “I saw the reflection that I always wanted to see.” A concise summary of what gender reaffirmation finally means: recognising your own body in front of the mirror.
In ‘A Fantastic Woman’ and ‘Laurence Anyways’ we see the transformation of men wanting to be women, but in Celine Sciamma’s ‘Tomboy’ it is slightly different: a girl wants to be a boy. And we see the difference because the age of Laure (Tomboy’s protagonist) is more easily influenced by her social surroundings than Laurence and Marina. The drama is sharper but at the same time more tender. Laure explores her own sexuality through the condition of men, perhaps because it was easier to become one than a woman, even in a more developed society than the one depicted in ‘A Fantastic Woman’. Frances judges transsexuality with the same critical eye, but in ‘Tomboy’ it is slightly different. Laure’s family accepts her the way she is, but they finally force her to behave and dress like a girl. This causes social trauma for Laure but it doesn’t matter: you have to follow the rules.
The main characters of the three films have a narrow circle of support. In ‘A Fantastic Woman’ it is Marina’s sister, in ‘Laurence Anyways’ it is Laurence’s girlfriend and in ‘Tomboy’ it is Laure’s sister… And the mirror. Except for ‘Laurence Anyways’, all of them turn to the mirror when looking for a break in their lives. It is especially symbolic in the scene when Laure introduces a piece of play-dough as a penis. For the first time, the mirror gives her back the reflection she always wanted to see.
I believe that ‘A Fantastic Woman’ revalues the cinema of gender. It builds an active resistance, not only in the script but also in Lelio’s visual resources to stand against the injustices. To look at the issue straight in the eye and point at society as the first accomplice of discrimination. We can’t expect to be looking at the reflection all the time, trying to pretend nothing happens because it’s not true. We’re dealing with a new gender paradigm. It is not about women and men anymore, we have more colours and we have to be open to dealing with that and accepting it. Like in ‘A Fantastic Woman’, death humanises all we can love (another topic present in the three movies) to help transsexuals find their way to self-recognition. No more mirrors, no more dresses, no more hiding: the reverse angle of each person – Laurence, Marina and Laure – should be understanding.