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A Fantastic Woman

The opening scene where we see the couple checking each other out, demonstrates both what’s good and bad about this movie. Orlando Reyes (Francisco Reyes Moran) is a gray haired business owner, going to a club for a drink. He’s listening to lounge singer Marina (Daniela Vegaare), as she sings the classic salsa number “Periodica De Ayer.” She smiles as she sings to him, and he smiles back, sipping his drink and quietly singing along. It’s romantic, and it leads to them going back to his place. Yet you don’t know if they’re already a couple. It appears he just picked her up, and you’re not even sure if they’re going to a hotel or his apartment. When I found out they had been together for a year, I was surprised. So for every scene I loved, there was a scene that was frustrating.

It’s not spoiling anything (since it happens early in the movie and is shown in trailers), that Orlando dies soon after. There’s a quick series of events at the hospital and you feel horrible for Marina. Now for those that don’t know, Marina is played by Chilean’s first transgender singer/actress/model. If this film is any indication, she has a big career ahead of her. It’s a tour de force performance, showing off her voice and acting ability.

As intriguing as the hospital scene is, it’s the first of many scenes done better in other films. We’re supposed to think it’s rude of the doctor to address her as male (her ID card states she’s a male). He’s also suspicious of the bruises the patient had all over his body, and the police are called. Isn’t that what doctors should do? To use another movie that comes to mind, in The Sixth Sense, the mother hated a doctor accusing her of abusing her son when he had bruises all over his body. Now, Marina’s dealings with the police aren’t as friendly, although you can’t fault them for their initial investigation and how that starts to go south.

It’s interesting to watch Marina as she deals with his family — an ex-wife that is disgusted by their relationship and a son that seems to care less about his father’s passing and more about inheriting his apartment and wanting Marina out. Again, that’s something lots of families do. Each week on a legal show I listen to, there’s at least one call with a similar situation (it just doesn’t involve somebody that’s transgender). And certainly, their bigotry towards Marina is disgusting, and you wish they would be more compassionate. Yet she’s also almost half his age, which makes you think — even if she weren’t transgender and was some gorgeous, blonde lounge singer — they might think of her as a gold digger; and even if they don’t think that was her intention initially, they certainly don’t want to give up any of the things they’re inheriting, when this couple wasn’t married. That means the ex-wife is demanding she drop off the car. That’s a terrific scene, and it breaks your heart.

Yet the scene where Marina tells his son, who is wondering aloud what he’ll do with the dog, is weird. Marina shouts, “The dog is mine. He gave it to me.”

Uh…no he didn’t. Nobody that is dating somebody tells them, “Hey, do you want my dog?” Or was she implying he said, “If anything happens to me, I want you to take care of my dog.” It made no sense to have that line written that way, and the son had history with the mutt.

Another scene that is understandable, yet we’re supposed to feel so angry about — the family not wanting Marina to attend the funeral. We know nothing about how this couple got together …what if he left his wife and kids for her? Would the “homewrecker” be welcome at the funeral? A similar circumstance I found extremely powerful in A Single Man, because a professor (Colin Firth) is grieving the loss of his male lover, and it was at a time (early ‘60s) when most gay men weren’t out of the closet.

Orlando’s brother is the only family member that’s nice to Marina, and it made me wish I had known more about why that is. They hadn’t met before, but perhaps his brother had told him how happy he was, etc. It would’ve been nice to have seen some of that. Instead, we’re watching an entire movie of Marina being angry, and everyone else acting like jerks to her. It was all one-dimensional, cliched characters.

Director and co-writer Sebastian Lelio (Gloria) gives us a rather conventional story that starts strong but never really grabs you the way it should. Yet he’s a talented enough filmmaker to give us some terrifically shot scenes. One of those involves Marina at a club, and her walk of shame in the rain.

There’s another scene where Marina is getting her nails done and says, “I have orangutan hands,” with the manicurist replying, “Nonsense.” A slight smile appears on Marina’s face and it’s heartwarming.

Cinematographer Benjamin Echazareta gave us some visually stunning shots. There’s interesting color and lighting. Although, a number of shots involving mirrors don’t work at all. One of those has two guys carrying a huge mirror, with Marina getting a glimpse of herself in it (I immediately thought of a scene like that worked so powerfully — in The Mask, when Eric Stoltz sees his disfigured face, actually looking normal in a carnival funhouse mirror).

There just isn’t enough drama in this movie, and that’s mostly because Marina isn’t all that interesting; or perhaps, just watching her grieve and deal with mean people isn’t all that interesting. It seems her character could’ve been stronger, more compelling, and had better coping mechanisms. It’s almost as if she was dealing with these comments and stares for the first time. Now, when a scene involves a few thugs harassing her on the street…that works (even if we’ve seen that type of scene done better before).

Another example of Lelio getting things wrong involves the music. It was a treat hearing the Alan Parsons Project tune “Time.” Some of the lyrics:

Goodbye my love/maybe for forever/Goodbye my love/The tide waits for me/Who knows when we shall meet again/If ever, but time/Keeps flowing like a river …

And one of the best songs from the summer of love — Aretha Franklin’s “(You Make me Feel Like) A Natural Woman”. Yet the problem is, I don’t like songs that act as cues to what is happening on screen.

They played my favorite Vivaldi piece — Mandolin Concerto, yet it didn’t work for the scene that was shown (Marina in the car with her sister and brother-in-law). Again, I just think about other movies that use Vivaldi so much better (the first time I heard Mandolin Concerto used was in Kramer vs. Kramer and it was perfect, as it captured a frantic father trying to cook for his son; something he had never done before).

This was the Chilean entry for “best foreign language film” and it won the Oscar in that category, and is certainly worth checking out. I just think it’s a bit overrated.

2 ½ stars out of 5.