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A Fantastic Woman: An interview with director Sebastian Lelio
March 2, 2018
I first caught A Fantastic Woman, back in October at the London Film Festival and was immediately smitten with film’s protagonist, Marina Vidal (Daniela Vega). Her mercurial beauty captured in every scene is intensely captivating, its things that cinema is made of. Through the film’s exuberant, vivid but also troubling theme, we are bestowed a thought provoking portrayal of this marginalized character. With the backdrop of the gorgeous Chilean capital of Santiago, the film manages to galvanize viewers by immersing them through a gamut of emotions, as we see Marina succumb to severe prejudice to reach to a crescendo of total empowerment.
Marina is a transgender woman who works as a waitress, moonlights as a nightclub singer and is in a loving relationship with older boyfriend Orlando (Francisco Reyes). After an informal birthday dinner, Orlando wakes up in the middle of the night feeling out of sorts. He is rushed hospital where he suddently dies from a brain aneurism. What follows is a series of disturbing altercations, as Marina is slowly being cut off from anything to do with Orlando’s affairs, including attending his funeral. Acting out of blatant bigotry, we watch family members and the authorities intent on unfoundedly judging Marina as a perpetrator, a manipulator, a whore or as someone who’s feelings dont matter.
The film is deservedly up for Best Foreign Film nomination for this year’s Oscars taking place this Sunday. We had the privilege to catch up with director Sebastian Lelio a few weeks ago to talk to us about his film, Daniela and what it feels like to be nominated for an Oscar.
Congratulations on the film and for the deserved Oscar nomination. How are you feeling?
Good. A bit tired, but overall very happy. These recognitions, I take them as an indicator. People saying that film should be seen or that the film will be seen by more people. That’s great. That’s why I make films.
It pretty impressive to be nominated for an Oscar. Out of so many films that come out each year, to get shortlisted down to five, that in itself is already a success.
It’s tricky, as this situation does play around with your mind and hearing what other people say can influence you. I try not to pay too much attention because you don’t make films to compete. Its an artificial situation that industry puts you and the film in. When I’ve been with the other directors that are also nominated in the category, its pure comradery. We all know how hard it is to make films. There is no negative energy. Personally I try to stay sane, otherwise it’s too noisy.
Honestly though at the end of the day, it’s great news, we are happy that the film is getting recognised. Its an amplification for the film and that’s a great thing. And then if anything miraculously happens we are ready to dance till dawn.
What makes a first impression is Daniela’s looks. She has a very distinct and interesting face. Orlando’s ex-wife calls her a ‘chimera.’ I was thinking perhaps it gives her a sense of freedom to be this ambiguous figure. You seem to have played with in the film.
I think, early on in the writing process, the need to create more of an enigmatic character was already there. As a spectator you are watching the secondary characters judge her, calling her names, trying to define her. Asking, what exactly is she? And we gave enough space and time in the film to see this situation from every possible angle. But here and there, Marina looks straight at the lens, at you and in away asks you: ‘what name would you call me?’. But the film, I hope, does it in a way that is not so aggressive. More of an invitation to practice your spiritual elasticity. So, there is room for you to think she is crazy, that she should be locked up or for you to think she is absolutely right to do what she is doing; the right to say goodbye to her lover.
My hope that towards the end of the film, the spectator regardless of their background, even if its conservative one, manages to find a space of empathy within themselves, that allows them to connect with someone they didn’t know they could connect with. That has to happen at that emotional level. It’s not intellectual and then suddenly without even noticing you are touched and want to see her survive and prevail and in the end not seeing a woman, but just a human being. I don’t know if the film has a message, but if there is something the film is against, that is the danger of labels.
There is a sauna scene at the end, where she moves the towel from under her arms to round her waist, so as to enter the men’s locker rooms. In that scene, we see her fluctuate gender. How easy was it for Daniela to expose herself that way?
It wasn’t easy. In fact, that was one of the hardest scenes, along with the kidnapping scene and the scene where she is photographed naked by the police. Those three scenes were the hardest. We talked a lot about it beforehand, talked through every detail so we where all comfortable with shooting those scenes. What I like most about that moment. In order to disguise herself, she gets naked. That paradox is cinema. What are you seeing? Perhaps what you are seeing is not what you think you are seeing. When that happens that’s an indicator of cinema because it’s a game of projection. How you look defines what you are seeing, but that thing you are seeing is oscillating and is ungraspable, changing all the time. In that way, you are challenged. You become an active spectator.
Like in your previous film Gloria, we see a lot of Santiago in the background. Also you seem to have accentuated a European feel to the city.
It was intentional for us to have the city as a speaking background and to portray it with a loving approach and then with a pitiless one as well. We wanted to capture the scale and grandeur of the city, which would remind you of the big buildings you see in American cities. People in Santiago, we have a strange relationship with our city. We have a hard time loving her.
Its a female city?
I think so… or maybe she is trans. Who knows??? But in Spanish a city is female. So yeah, I’ve always seen the opening sequence of The 400 Blows and I see the amount of love that director (François Truffaut) has for Paris. I would love to have that energy in my films, where the setting matters. A loving relationship with the space.
There is a heavy use of classical music and opera, especially the stunning final scene we see Marina sing the classic ‘Ombra Mia Fu’ aria. It is well known that Daniela is trained opera singer, was that her influence in the film?
Yes it was her, when I started thinking of Daniela, who originally came in to consult us, could be the actual star, I was then thinking I could make her sing. You see her in beginning that she sings salsa and then it changes to what she actually sings. Baroque and lyrical music. That scene with her singing, that was one of the things that came from her.
Perhaps this adds another layer to her intricate personality, which totally takes it away from the banal and narrow-minded view some people have of trans people.
I think we were very realistic with what Daniel actually is. So, it was like… this her, there you go. Look what you are missing just because of prejudice. If you open up a little bit…. look you might hear someone singing beautifully. And then I also really like the idea of ending with this energy which is pure gratefulness. It’s not anger, it’s not resentment, it’s not fear. Its peacefulness, its gratefulness. After an entire process of purification. I was attracted to that idea of finishing in that vibration.
There is quite a few things in the film that are left unsaid.Such as we often don’t know the motivation of the cruelty for some of the secondary characters towards Marina. Why did you withhold that information?
Precisely to create more interactivity with the viewer. As a viewer you are filling in the gaps with the little clues you have. You need to be attentive when watching, you can’t even blink.
And Marina continually doesn’t say anything, doesn’t fight back. Just accepts the abuse thrown at her.
Because of the enigmatic element of the character it was necessary for the character to be more or less opaque, so we can naturally and effortlessly project our desires and fears on her. If we knew too much, then that reduces the space for us to fulfil in our heads our own making of Marina. It is like in 2001 Space Odyssey , the monolith scene. What is it? It’s a game of projections.
I guess when I watched the film because of my background, I welcomed it, I understand it and I also relate to it. Have you had experiences with viewers that perhaps don’t have such a positive reaction?
Very few, because I guess the people that approach me are usually to congratulate or thank me. I did however feel some resistance in Chile, some people couldn’t totally relax with the film and Daniela’s character. But to be honest those occasions have been rare, too few to mention. Mainly we have encountered all lot of good vibes.
And Daniela has become a total role model. Since the film has come out, she has been dealing with many people getting in touch, espeically people who are seeking to transition themselves. Every city that she visits, people find out and want to see her and seek her advice. It’s been really intense year for her. A lot of people have been very grateful that someone like her is getting such recognition. It’s been very moving.
You seem very prolific. You imdb page is impressive; you working on two Hollywood films at the same time. Are you naturally this driven?
I’ve been waiting for this for years for all my life, now that I can do it…its full steam ahead.. But yes, after Gloria, I stopped a little to regroup and wrote A Fantastic Woman, Disobedience (upcoming film starring Rachel McAdams and Rachel Weisz) and then the English version of Gloria (with Julianne Moore) and then I shot them back to back. It’s not that I can do this whenever I want, it’s the circumstances. I want to make films… so I say… ‘bring it on’.
A Fantastic Woman is out today.
Words by Daniel Theophanous @danny_theo_
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