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(c) New Internationalist

A Fantastic Woman

Mixed Media
Film
Chile

A Fantastic Woman

(103 minutes) Written and directed by Sebastián Lelio

It’s a classic, even clichéd, opening: the nightclub singer, charismatic, somewhat mysterious, an object of fantasy, fronting the band, and acknowledging the (older) patron who’s appeared. Marina is singing Aretha Franklin and Carole King’s ‘You make me feel like a natural woman: Before I met you, life was so unkind, you’re the key to my peace of mind…’ and her face tells us she means it. Later, after they turn in, and make love, Orlando feels ill – as Marina closes the apartment door to get him to the car, he falls downstairs, with dire consequences…

The film, set in Chile, is the story of how Marina, a trans woman, holds up in an unkind world, and maintains her peace of mind and identity. Hospital staff question their relationship, address Marina with the masculine pronoun. A woman detective, who says she is ‘sympathetic’, insists that, because of Orlando’s injuries, Marina must be examined and photographed naked. And it gets worse, when she is faced with the attitude of Orlando’s ex-wife and children.

Lelio’s film is detailed, convincing and never overdone. Orlando’s brother is kind. As is Marina’s music teacher. Her boss, at her waiting job, is, up to a point, patient. Her sister and brother-in-law are exasperated by her stubbornness. When she is physically attacked, it’s distressing, but realistically amateurish and absurd. We get Marina fantasizing a performance that’s all sequins and silk. Not least there’s the compelling central depiction of Marina’s belief, resolve, and vulnerability, from the first to the very last, transcendent, deeply moving, scene.

★★★★★ ML

Custody (Jusqu’à la garde)

(93 minutes) Written and directed by Xavier Legrand

Legrand’s debut is as unremittingly tense and uncomfortable a feature as you are likely to see. Coolly directed, it powerfully brings home the emotional impact of bullying and potential violence following a marriage break-up, and the disputed custody of a 12-year-old boy.

It opens with the focus on the intent face of a family court judge. She reads a deposition from the boy, Julien, saying he fears his father and does not want to see him at all. His 18-year-old sister is free to decide for herself. Her deposition alleges actual violence. But there is no hard evidence, and the father argues that the mother has turned them against him. Then, from the reverse angle, the judge’s point of view, we see the parents. One of you, she says, is not telling the truth. They will have her decision in a week or so.

Apart from the opening scene, we’re told very little. It’s a film that draws us in, so we judge for ourselves from what we see of people’s behaviour, attitudes, feelings, how they hold themselves, and what they do not say as much as what they say. Casting and performances are spot on, and it’s technically superb, with the naturalistic soundtrack adding to the discomfort.

★★★★★ ML

New Internationalist issue 510 magazine cover This article is from the February 2018 issue of New Internationalist.
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