As Sebastian Lelio’s Oscar-nominated 'A Fantastic Woman' lights up Australian cinema screens, we spoke to the director about love, adversity, and the arbiters of empathy.
Stephen A. Russell

20 Feb 2018 - 3:51 PM  UPDATED 20 Feb 2018 - 6:48 PM

Opening with a glorious panoramic shot of the magnificent Iguazu Falls straddling Argentina and Brazil, Chilean writer/director Sebastian Lelio’s Oscar-nominated A Fantastic Woman (Una Mujer Fantástica) is a mesmerising film that artfully plays with shifting perspectives.

Set to a swelling string score and glowing with a rose-coloured haze, the radiant mist conjured by that crashing water seamlessly transports us to a moodily lit sauna in Santiago where we first meet 50-something business owner Orlando (Francisco Reyes).

Later that night, he treats girlfriend Marina - a waitress by day and cocktail lounge singer by night - to her birthday dinner, confessing he has misplaced the tickets he purchased to whisk them away to that fantasy escape.

The whereabouts of those tickets forms the first of several quests contained in this shimmering chameleon of a movie, as Marina, a trans woman, struggles with the all-too-cruel aftermath of Orlando’s sudden death.

“I really wanted an opening that reminded somehow of the old melodramas, like films from the early 50s, with a landscape and a music that is evocative and big enough to make you forget about your life and to invite you into the dream,” an enthused Lelio says, speaking on the phone from his home in Berlin.

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Playing Marina at the centre of that dream is Daniela Vega, also a trans woman. A magnetic, emotionally rich presence, the relative newcomer ably handles both the film’s reality-warping interludes – including a, yes, fantastic disco scene that surpasses Lelio’s previous film Gloria, which he has just re-made in English with Julianne Moore – and the all-too-real invasions of privacy Marina endures.

Vega, a trained opera singer, conveys so much power for playing the role in a restrained, if obviously pained, manner. Marina cares not for the callous demands of Orlando’s family that strip away her home and car, but will be damned if she’ll let them steal Diabla, the dog she shared with her lover – another, far more important, quest.

“The dog is the only person who does not have any problem with her,” Lelio notes. "There is the family rejection and suspicion towards her, which has to do with class, and with discrimination because of who she is. And then there’s a more institutional type of violence against her, which is even more cruel, so the doctors, the police and the detective, and the sum of it all creates this nightmarish surrounding.”

For all its moments of painful truth, the film exists in a kind of dreamscape, so that even the mundane act of workmen carrying a wobbling mirrored panel through the streets, one of many reflective surfaces capturing Marina lost in thought, becomes somehow surreal.

“You know, I guess the right way to have done this film would have been with the raw light of social realism, with a handheld camera, and I just found it so tempting to do it exactly in the opposite way, so to go for a classical calligraphy and to create a hypnotic film that is a cinematic, captivating journey,” Lelio says.

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He’s aided in this endeavour by cinematographer Benjamín Echazarreta and that haunting score by Matthew Herbert and Nani García. “I always thought of the film as a Trojan horse. It has the appearance of classicism, but it’s hiding something that is so hyper-modern, which is the main character and the fact that Daniela is interpreting it. She’s bringing a real beating heart at the centre of that artifice.”

Having decided to focus on a trans woman’s story early on, an idea that felt, “full of potential, full of danger, exciting and moving,” to Lelio, he was determined to educate himself on that experience and cast appropriately. Returning to hometown Santiago, the search alighted on Vega, initially hired as an adviser.

“I was fascinated by her immediately,” Lelio says. “I loved her, I found her witty and funny and political and great. I wasn’t looking for an actress back then, I was looking for clarity, and to examine if I really wanted to make the film or not.”

Working with her for a year, with Vega helping to get every detail right, Lelio began to realise there was no one else who could play this part. “Somewhere towards the end of the writing process, I realised that she was the one.”

Debuting at the Berlin International Film Festival last year, where the film took home the Silver Bear and the queer Teddy award, Vega has subsequently shot to stardom in Chile. “It’s been really amazing to witness the process and I’m so proud of her and the way in which she has handled all this with such grace and intelligence,” Lelio glows.

She brings home, for him, the core message of A Fantastic Woman. “The film is, for me, something about the limits of empathy,” Lelio says. “What are we willing to accept from others and up to which limit? Are there illegitimate people? Are there illegitimate relationships? And if so, who draws the line under which authority and why? And that problem, I think, of course is at the centre of the film, but it is as well the crisis that we are going through as a human society, everywhere. So I think that’s one of the reasons why it is resonating wherever we show it.”

A Fantastic Woman by Sebastian Lelio is on general release from February 22.

Watch Lelio’s previous film Gloria at SBS On Demand right now: