Sunday, April 15, 2018

Death and the Maiden

Daniela Vega in A Fantastic Woman (Una mujer fantastica)

Somewhere in the middle of A Fantastic Woman (2017, directed by Sebastián Lelio), I began to get irritated at the miseries heaped on Marina, its titular heroine. In my head, I began to ask of the film: "Is no one going to be kind to this woman?" Is being transgender such a mark of Cain that it encourages everyone in Santiago, Chile to view her as a punching bag? There's a certain level of hopelessness in this depiction that is suggestive of the reasons trans people attempt suicide at such appalling rates. This, in spite of the fact that Marina is not a stereotype. She doesn't fall into the specific fallacies of transgender depictions. She is never shown putting on make-up even though she wears it (you have no idea of how much of a relief this is, o cis reader). She has a profession that is not serial killer or sex worker. She even has someone who loves her as the movie begins. This does everything "right," or as right as you're probably ever going to get from a filmmaker who isn't trans. Certainly, star Daniela Vega's fingerprints are all over this. She was originally hired for the film as a consultant on the trans community before director Sebastián Lelio realized that she was the perfect actress for the role, so there's more to their collaboration than what is usual between a trans actress and the director. There is certainly a level of rage involved that might elude a cis actor in the role as an equivalent collaborator. Speaking as a trans person myself, I found the film deeply infuriating, which is admittedly part of the film's design. It also made me deeply unhappy, which is probably not part of the film's design. I suggested on social media that a more accurate title for the film would be "Fucking Cis People!", but I'm sure that would be a provocation that's more headache than it's worth. Eventually, the film relented on its version of the story of Job and did allow someone to be kind to Marina, and then someone else, but it so front loads its whips and scorns that by then, it almost doesn't matter.

The story one finds in A Fantastic Woman concerns Marina and her partner, Orlando, who are in the process of moving in together. It's Marina's birthday as the film begins, and Orlando has purchased tickets to vacation at Iguazú Falls in Argentina, though he has mislaid the envelope with the printed tickets. Marina is a singer in a nightclub by night and a waitress by day. On the night of her birthday, she and Orlando have dinner and go back home to make love. Afterward, Orlando begins to feel some sick and collapses on the floor. Marina dresses them both and in her haste leaves Orlando near some stairs, down which he promptly falls. By the time they arrive at the hospital, Orlando is unresponsive and, soon enough, he dies. Marina steps outside to contact Orlando's family then flees into the night only to be arrested by the police and returned to the hospital, where the cop in charge has some questions for her, not least of which is an interrogation of her gender, which he clearly does not accept. The contusions from Orlando's fall down the stairs suggest to the doctors and the police a couple of unflattering narratives, including one that casts Marina a victim of abuse. This last is pursued by a policewoman from the social services division, who insists that Marina answer her questions and submit to an examination that strips her naked in front of a male photographer. And then she has to deal with Orlando's family. Orlando's son shows up at their apartment in order to rush Marina out of it and takes possession of Marina and Orlando's dog. Orlando's ex-wife makes it explicitly clear that she is not welcome at the wake or the funeral and openly calls her "a perversion" and "a chimera." When Marina actually shows up at the wake, Orlando's son and another relative abduct her off the street, wrap her head in packing tape, and dump her in a seedy part of the city. Eventually, she gives it all up and moves in with her sister. But she wants her dog back and she wants to know what lock fits the mysterious key.

Daniela Vega in A Fantastic Woman (Una mujer fantastica)

As I say, this film does a lot right. First and foremost, it proceeds from the premise that Marina is a human being, with an interior life filled with the same needs and wants that everyone else has. She wants to be loved, she wants to make art, she wants to go on a mundane vacation just like any other couple, she wants to care for her partner when he's sick, she wants to say goodbye to him when he dies, she wants her dog. These are all such mundane parts of fundamental human experiences that when the film contrives to deny these things to her on the basis of who and what she is, it should inculcate a deep sense of wrong in a sensitive audience. But the film is savvy, too, to the ways of the world. It knows how the world seeks to deny to transgender people this basic humanity. This is a world that seeks to legislate where trans people can pee so that it won't discomfort the sensibilities of cis people, as if trans people don't have this fundamental biological need. This is a world that seeks to deny trans people their own self-determination, the autonomy of their own bodies. This is not, in other words, a world made for the likes of Marina (nor for your humble authoress). A Fantastic Woman dismantles a lot of these kinds of attitudes both by placing them into the words of utterly loathsome people who casually engage in these petty bigotries as if they're the most natural thing in the world, predicated, as bigots always do, on the notion that they must protect the children from this perversion. The film puts that word--"perversion"--into the mouth of Orlando's ex-wife, which she directs at Marina face to face. Marina, conscious of just how precarious her life is, stands there and takes the wound without retaliating, but you can see the hurt in her face. Turning the other cheek isn't just a moral choice for trans people, it's a survival mechanism.

Daniela Vega in A Fantastic Woman (Una mujer fantastica)

The most pointed arrow in the film's quiver is its lead actress. Hers is the kind of role that cis actors have, in past years, ridden to award-season glory, but this film strips the part of its potential for stunt acting "technique" by casting an actual trans person in the part. It doesn't go out of its way to code her identity as something artificial, either, which is a ubiquitous problem with trans roles played by cis actors. Daniela Vega deconstructs the notion of what trans people are supposed to look like just by her own presence in the film. She's gorgeous, though not objectified for the most part, and not necessarily gorgeous in a cis-normative way. The filmmakers have flattered her with a wardrobe that is both stylish and practical and they've shot her in a way that's no different than they might shoot any other leading actress. Indeed, they've shot her in a way that confronts the audience with her face and body and challenges them to view her as beautiful, to understand what a cis man might see in her and love. Vega's performance is superb--she's worthy of the film's acclaim--but her very presence is a provocation.

Daniela Vega in A Fantastic Woman (Una mujer fantastica)

They've also built a movie around her that is a cut above most trans-themed films. Sebastián Lelio is obviously a major talent, and his conception of Marina's story alternates between contemporary realism and realism of a more magical bent. The shot of Marina leaning into the wind is both on point and absurd, summing up the film to that point in an image seemingly drawn from a silent movie. It's Marina as existential everyman in the mode of Buster Keaton. She's often equally stoic. Marina is haunted by Orlando throughout the movie, particularly after her abduction and she enters into a cinematic delirium, a long dark night of the soul. The film greets Marina's grief with a tenuous reality poised between life and death, where Orlando acts as Marina's guide though the thorn hedges and quicksands placed in her way to both a reconciliation with his death and, ultimately, to a cathartic ending. She gets a triumphant concert in the end, in which she sings beautifully. This is rare enough for trans people in cinema. Usually we get death or tragedy or loneliness as we wait to die. This is a film of deep cinematic intelligence and uncommon empathy.

And yet...and yet, I mentioned that it made me unhappy. I chalk this up to three scenes that reared up and slapped me in the face. In the first, the police woman working the social services beat demands that Marina undress so that she and a (male) photographer can ascertain whether she's been beaten by Orlando, and if Orlando's death were a result of a domestic violence altercation. This is a harsh violation of Marina's bodily autonomy, a reminder that trans bodies are at the sufferance of a cis gaze. This creates a relationship between the film and the audience beyond the bounds of the story. It enters into the cinema of voyeurism. It invites the audience to look. This is a huge gamble, given that a cis audience might look out of morbid curiosity rather than empathy. It's the root of the attraction of transgender porn, after all. I wanted to shrink in my seat when I saw this scene, surrounded as I was by cis people. In the second scene, Orlando's son and his relatives have kidnapped Marina off the street and to punish her, they wrap her head and face with packing tape. This culminates in a shot of her face distorted by the tape into a cubist deformation that's suggestive of monstrosity. The film makes literal the words of Orlando's ex-wife by presenting her face as an actual chimera. In the context of the film, I'm sure that the filmmakers intended this as a way into the bigotry of Orlando's family and its violence against Marina, but the image is shocking out of all proportion to its intent. It depicts Marina as the monster, rather than her assailants. Finally, there is the sequence where Marina enters the sauna in order to open Orlando's locker with the mysterious key. In this sequence, she enters through the women's locker area with her towel wrapped around her as a woman would wear it, then enters into the men's area after adjusting it downward as a man would wear it. She uses the ambiguous androgyny of her own body a to run the gauntlet of the cis gaze. This sequence is all kinds of problematic, even if you grant that Marina is confident enough in her identity to perpetrate the deception. The political dimension of this sequence should be self-evident to anyone who has followed the "debates" about the presence of trans people in sex-segregated spaces like bathrooms and locker rooms. Benign as this scene may be in its intent, it's a bomb accidentally fumbled onto the floor by the filmmakers. Marina inadvertently becomes the very avatar of the invading trans person of the transphobic imagination in this scene. Moreover, Orlando's locker is empty. It's a Maguffin. A red herring. This whole sequence ends in an empty space occupying the screen.

I won't say that A Fantastic Woman isn't an important or good film. It is. I won't suggest that Daniela Vega's triumph in the lead role, both in the film itself and during the film's publicity tour (the Oscar ceremony, et cetera) isn't an actual triumph for her and maybe even for trans people, though I'm skeptical about that last part. But some of the elements that make the film powerful are also an affront. This is still, at its barest essence, a film in which the plot is contingent on Marina's transness. If she's not trans, there is no film, which consigns the film to the depressing category of "social problem film" in spite of itself. It's a film I can admire from a distance maybe, but it's probably not a film I will ever embrace without grave reservations. If even then.

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1 comment:

Marilyn said...

Christianne - This is an important review of an important film and has so much to offer people who want to understand the trans experience. I did feel that the film got its Oscar because of Vega, not because of anything inherently wonderful about the film. Indeed, I had reservations about how it laid its cruelty on with a trowel. The best parts of the film involved Marina's relationship with Orlanda - they had a humanity and authenticity that the rest of the film approximated, at best. I don't know if I agree about the locker room scene - to me it also shows that nothing horrible happens when the gender line is breached and that there is emptiness in masculinity for Marina as symbolized by the empty locker. It is also a moment of catharsis, allowing Marina to really let go of Orlando and get on with her life. I also don't know if I think of it as a problem film, though the Oscar accolades would tend to confirm that interpretation. It's a window on a world many of us would like to understand better. It would have been far better if the whole film had been about Marina and Orlanda and skipped the melodrama.