The best film of the 2017 London Film Festival features an astonishing performance, expert direction and groundbreaking humanity.
Orlando is an older gentleman. The film opens with him getting a massage in a sauna, and follows him around as he goes about his day. Orlando heads to a beautiful nightclub and locks eyes with the enchanting woman singing. She is soon revealed to be Orlando’s much younger partner, Marina (Daniela Vega).
The opening minutes of Sebastian Leilo’s A Fantastic Woman are bursting with colour. The frame is filled with subtle and not-so-subtle colour palettes and arrangements. It’s particularly evident when Orlando and Marina are together. The warm colours on screen beautifully emulate their feelings for one another; their chemistry is genuine and palpable. Leilo’s eye for expressive visual language is impressive (one particular shot featuring a mirror is especially noteworthy), and the film is full of striking compositions. Before long, however, tragedy befalls the loving couple, and Marina is left to pick up the pieces in the aftermath. As a love so strong extinguishes, there is no surprise that colours become more muted.
One important note: Marina is a transgender woman. Its easy to imagine how the treatment of Marina would go in another filmmakers hands, as transwomen are routinely used as the butt of a joke, or a mere dalliance in a sexual fetish. But here, in A Fantastic Woman, Marina is a fleshed out, multi-dimensional person with hopes, dreams and goals. It is one of the many subtle revolutions running through the film’s veins, perhaps upstaged only by the fact that the film shifts its perspective from a well-off heterosexual male to a trans woman. It’s a spectacular bait-and-switch: this is not Orlando’s world we have come to see – it is Marina’s.
While its always exciting to see more films focusing on lesser seen experiences – particularly in the trans community – what is especially interesting here is the choice to cast a transgender woman in the role. The casting of cisgender people in trans roles has been a hot-button topic for some time now, and casting Daniela Vega is extremely refreshing, especially since she is an absolute revelation in the role.
It’s important to note that such a casting decision, or even the social politics behind it, does not necessarily make a film worthwhile. The politics are important though: a cursory glance over statistics about the lives of trans people all over the world show exactly how vital it is for stories like these to be told. The casting certainly adds an interesting context to the film, but even separated completely from the issue, A Fantastic Woman is a sublime experience.
A Fantastic Woman may appear initially like a misleading title – its easy to imagine it applied to a biopic about someone making major strides in the fields of science and technology or something similar. After all, Marina is just a waitress who moonlights as a nightclub singer, trying to keep her life intact and receive what she is due after a tragedy. It does not take long to realize that the title applies perfectly, as Leilo delivers a frank view of the way people speak to, look at, and generally think about Marina. Much of the power in the film comes from Daniela Vega’s performance and the way the script and camera keep things almost exclusively from Marina’s perspective. There is great power in Marina’s resistance. She is deliberately misgendered, questioned, even interrogated because of her gender identity, and the script wisely makes this abundantly clear.
There are dashes of magical realism that give the film extra dimensions. At her lowest point, Marina heads to a nightclub. Once there, the camera cuts to a choreographed glittery dance number with Marina front and centre. Soon, she literally flies towards the camera, and there is a beautiful image of Marina enveloping the frame. It’s a beautiful moment in which Marina is able to fully embrace herself and her own identity, free of the vicious judgements of the outside world. In this moment, she is safe and removed from the abuse she receives on a daily basis. It’s a stunning, and all too brief sequence that gives a much needed sense of liberation.
Then there is Vega herself, who embodies the role with staggering authenticity and conviction. Her face is relaxed, yet expressive, and her eyes act as the windows to her character’s soul. Unfortunately, it’s not difficult to imagine that Vega has likely had some of the slurs hurled towards her character used towards her in real life, and in a way the role is an opportunity for catharsis. Vega’s performance, which involves as much acting as it does reacting, is achingly tender and completely convincing. It deserves to go down as one of the great performances on screen, and there should certainly be award buzz for Vega come Oscar season, though this is unlikely to manifest as the film isn’t released in the US until February.
A Fantastic Woman is a bold, singular vision of a woman determined to fight for her rights. On paper, it is perhaps not that remarkable. Thanks to a generation-defining lead performance, masterful direction and a beautiful score, the film is a hugely original and inspiring experience. This isn’t just one of the best films of the year; it’s also one of the best films of the decade. Unmissable.