A Fantastic Woman: The Picturesque Cinematography of Chilean Film

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“A Fantastic Woman” (Sebastián Lelio,2017) will go down in history as the first Chilean film to win an Oscar, and the first Oscar winner with a transgender woman starring as the leading role. This film addresses a pertinent issue, not only in Chile, but in the world today, and has been internationally recognised for doing so, provoking a reaction from Chilean citizens and authorities, as well as from audiences overseas, gaining honours from the festival circuit, and having its leading actress, Daniela Vega, be the first transgender person to present at the Oscars. The film uses unique and captivating methods to portray the hardships of the transgender experience in Chile and gives us a true insight into the life of Marina, whose character is strengthened by personal insight and experiences of the actress, Daniela Vega, whom the character is loosely based on. I will examine how the struggle of Marina, a transgender woman living in Chile, is portrayed in the film using filmic devices such as cross-genre, imagery and close shots. I will discuss whether this had an impact on LGBTQ+ rights in Chilean society.

This striking film opens with shots of the famous Iguazu Falls, one of the seven wonders of the world. It then moves to more relaxed shots of an older man, later revealed to be Orlando, relaxing in a public bath. We then move the restaurant where Orlando’s lover, Marina, is performing. She is a lyrical singer, and her when their eyes meet, it is clear that Orlando is mesmerised by her. They have dinner together in a restaurant and return home, they make love and go to sleep. We are lured into a sense that this film is a simple romantic drama. However, when Orlando wakes up later that night and Marina must rush him to hospital, it seems that everything starts to fall apart. Following his death, Marina is treated with suspicion, doubt, hatred and blatant transphobia mingled with grief.

Being the first Chilean film to ever win an Oscar for best foreign film, it is clear that “A Fantastic Woman” provoked a huge reaction in Chile. The film is set in Santiago, which is depicted as a modern, glossy and developed city throughout the film, in sharp contrast to the antiquated mentality that its citizens are portrayed as holding. The audience mainly see the modern areas of the city, it appears developed and aesthetic, however, we do see the most underdeveloped, dirty area of the city as we Marina is driven, against her will, to an alleyway, pushed to a dark place both physically and mentally. She is physically abused by members of Orlando’s family and left in the alleyway. This depicts the mindset of Orlando’s family members and of many Chilean citizens regarding the LGBTQ+ community. Chile has been called “the most conservative country in Latin America” largely due to the influence of the catholic church, which has played a central role in Chilean politics since the colonial days, according to the US library of congress. However, following the homophobic attack and brutal murder of Chilean man Daniel Zamudio in 2012, Chile was moved to action, as a BBC news article reported, “Within weeks of Mr Zamudio's murder, legislators, spurred into action by public outrage, had signed into law an anti-discrimination bill that had been languishing in parliament for seven years. The bill makes it a crime to discriminate on the basis of race, ethnicity, religion, sexual orientation, gender, appearance or disability”. Although there has been some political change, it is clear from “A Fantastic Woman” that transphobic and discriminatory attitudes continue to exist in Chilean society across all ages and sectors of society, as is shown in the film. From Orlando’s son, to the doctor, to the police detective in the film, each of these people discriminate against Marina and each show suspicion and contempt toward her in some way.

Lelio depicts how these prejudices are engrained into Chilean society through the attitudes of the characters which surround Marina. Sonia, the ex-wife of Orlando, treats Marina with utter contempt, and calls her “quimera/chimera ”. She also refers to her as an “ilusión/illusion”. This demonstrates Sonia’s belief that Marina is not a ‘real person’, but an impersonation, and therefore justifying her dehumanising treatment of her. Sonia will not permit Marina to have basic rights, such as allowing her to come to Orlando’s wake and funeral, taking the car and dog she and Orlando shared away from her, and forcing her to leave the apartment where she had recently moved in with Orlando. Sonia consistently uses the informal register of Spanish with Marina, using “tú” instead of “usted” denying Marina again the right to social norms and further attempting to alienate and dehumanise her.

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Other members of Orlando’s family treat Marina in a similar fashion. Bruno, the son of Orlando, goes as far as physically assaulting her, pushing her against the wall and saying “increíble/incredible ”, suggesting once more she is not human but some sort of phenomenon, he follows it by saying his father “estaba loco/was crazy ”. He gazes into Marina’s face at close proximity for a longer period of time than the viewer expects, this behaviour is confused and does not reflect the contempt in his words. His sudden movements and scattered reactions around Marina make it seem as though Bruno is confused and frustrated by her, as though he fears her and does not know how to react to her.

Officials within society are extremely discriminatory towards Marina. The first instance of this is when Marina takes Orlando to the hospital, she is sent to wait in the “zona sucia/dirty zone ”, creating a subtle foreshadowing of what will become more blatant later. When met by the doctor, Marina is not comforted in this distressing situation as we would expect, instead she is met with suspicion, a list of questions, she is looked up and down, with raised eyebrows, and told very little about what had happened to Orlando. Later Marina is contacted by a police detective and told to come in for questioning. Although there is no evidence presented for why this is necessary, Marina is forced to meet with her and to have an “inspección física/physical examination ” even though no reason is given for why this would be necessary. Although this is highly invasive and discriminatory, Marina is not provoked to react with outrage, she remains calm and silent. Despite all the trauma, she doesn’t falter and seems determined to remain true to herself.

The film employs a fluid style and mixes genre. From the outset, the viewer is set up to think that this is a detective style film, with Orlando searching for a misplaced envelope, which seems crucial to the plot but is later revealed to be a red-herring. The film employs elements of romance, noir, horror, musical fantasia, to haunting of a ghost story and quasi-Lynchian thriller. This shifting mood means that the film cannot be put into traditional categories of genre, it is, to use the Spanish “género” which can mean either gender or genre, this is a “transgénero” film. This device allows Lelio’s film to embody its message in character and style on many levels.

Throughout the film, the audience is captivated by Marina’s face. Lelio uses many instances where she catches her reflection in a mirror to create a focus on her face, which is effective as it prompts the audience to question what they see in her face. The use of reflections creates a sense of illusion, which is underlined when Sonia calls her an illusion. The extended shots force us to concentrate on her face and prompt deeper questions. In a speech given by Daniela Vega herself following the success of the film, she described how the film provokes questions within the audience, asking “What do you see in Marina? Whose perspective do you share? With whom do you identify?” We are forced to ask ourselves how we see Marina and why. In this way the film arouses prejudices and discrimination which the viewer was previously unaware of.

Another focus on Marina’s face is when she is taken by members of Orlando’s family, who tie her hands behind her back and wrap tape around her face, making her appear facially disfigured. When they push her out of the car, she sees her reflection in the window of the car door. This reflection of disfigurement makes the viewer feel uncomfortable and at first seems to show Marina as unnatural and disfigured, but in reality, the disfigurement it reflects the distorted mindset of the abusive family members.

Another example of Marina’s reflection being used to prompt questions is when she is shown lying naked on a bed with a mirror placed over her crotch. In the mirror she stares into a reflection her face. This scene draws from the Self Portrait by Armen Susan Ordjanian from ‘The Blatant Image: A magazine of feminist photography’ no. 1, 1981. This scene prompts questions within the mind of the viewer, questions of identity and of how we see Marina. It subtly nuances the fact that genitalia do not define someone’s gender and although Marina has hidden this part of herself from view, we see her face, her expression, full of complexities, and we are reminded that genitalia is not what defines us.

Fantastic Screen Play

It is clear that this film has been successful in provoking a reaction in Chile. The conservative President even tweeted, “Esta noche el cine chileno tocó las estrellas. Grande Chile y un gran abrazo, con orgullo y emoción, a todo el equipo de #UnaMujerFantástica” which translates as “Tonight, Chilean film reached the stars. Go Chile and a big hug, with pride and emotion, to the whole team behind #UnaMujerFantastica”.. Two days after the Oscars ceremony in Hollywood, A Fantastic Woman’s cast and crew met with Michelle Bachelet, former Chilean president. On the day of the cast’s visit, the Bachelet administration sent an ultimatum to Congress and labelled the gender-identity bill as “utmost urgent”. “It was an opportunity to accelerate things”. Therefore, it is clear that “A Fantastic Woman” has played a significant role in the advance of LGBTQ+ rights in Chile, and has also drawn attention to inequality and marginalization within society, highlighting the need for change.

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