A Fantastic Journey

And to celebrate its  Oscar win for Best Foreign Language Film, here’s my interview with Chilean director Sebastian Lelio about making A Fantastic Woman:

Chilean director Sebastian Lelio had such success at the Berlin Film Festival over the last few years, he decided to move to the city to live and work.

“It’s a lucky place for me,” he laughs. “After Gloria was a hit at the festival, I was offered a film maker grant to visit for five months and I’ve ended up staying five years so far,” he says. “I fell in love with Berlin, simple as that. It’s a great place to write and to operate from. It feels like it’s in the middle of everything, so many styles and idea and people.”

Lelio’s 2013 film Gloria, about an woman finding a new lease of life and love in her late 50s, won Best Actress for Paulina Garcia at Berlin and last year, his film A Fantastic Woman (Una Mujer Fantastica) won the Silver Bear for Best Screenplay there before going on to win praise around the world. 

This weekend, A Fantastic Woman opens in the UK and competes at the Oscars for Best Foreign Language Film, with many critics feeling its star, Daniela Vega, has been unfortunate not to be also nominated, a nod which would have made her the first transgender performer to be recognised for an acting prize.

I wonder if there’s a similarity between his home capital of Santiago, where A Fantastic Woman and Gloria are set, and the German city he’s made his home? The most obvious parallel would be to remake that both places have been subjected to dictatorships and fascist regimes. 

“Yes, I can’t ignore that element of it,” he says, “And I suppose Berlin is famous for transgender or cross-dressing, too, with all those cabaret clubs from the 1930s and Dietrich and all that. Maybe after the War, the wall and everything, it has a collective sense of freedom that a new generation is enjoying together. That’s a bit like parts of Chile. But Berlin is better at dealing with its past outwardly. The scars of those times are visible in the streets, acknowledged and remembered. In Chile, we tend to hide it away still and that’s of course why our reactions to it come out in everything we do, in film, in literature, in songs. Everything we do ends up as a kind of political metaphor or comment on the past.”

Lelio, along with his producer Pablo Larrain, can be said to be very much at the forefront of the current explosion in Chilean cinema that has lead to such international successes as No, Neruda, Tony Manero, The Club and Post Mortem, as well as Larrain’s American hit with Natalie Portman starring as Jackie. Lelia has just finished shooting his first English-language films: Disobedience, an adaptation of a Naomi Alderman novel, filmed with Rachel Weisz and Rachel McAdams and set in North London’s Orthodox Jewish community around Golders Green and Hendon; and a remake of his own Gloria, this time set in Los Angeles and starring Julianne Moore.

“To us, the Chilean wave of films feels natural,” says Lelio. “We weren’t allowed to make films for a very long time during the dictators of the 70s and 80s, so now we have the money, the cultural support and the chance, we’re taking it as eagerly as we can. I understand that to the outsiders, it looks like an explosion of activity but for us, it was a long, slow time coming.”

A Fantastic Woman (release in UK March 2) is a fabulous film. It’s the story of a transgender nightclub and opera singer, Marina Vidal ((played by the ethereal beauty Daniela Vega), whose older, wealthy lover dies in her arms while they’re about to have sex in the apartment he keeps for her in downtown Santiago, far from his suburban home and family.

Suddenly, Marina’s world falls apart and the certainties of her gender and identity are questioned at every turn – by hospital staff, police, lawyers and the man’s grieving family who struggle to deal with discovering their father’s affair.

Vega plays it with remarkable skill and dignity, and no shortage of vulnerable sensuality. Originally employed to help Lelio research the subject, the director offered Daniela the role after several elements of her life seeped into the character Lelio was writing. “I just woke up one morning, finished the first draft and realised, from our many conversations and coffees, I’d written Daniela into it. She was shocked I even considered her for the part and was too scared to do it, but we worked together on it and getting her ready for her first acting role, and I think she’s wonderful.”

You can’t disagree. It’s a beguiling, sexy performance that will have viewers questioning their own identifications with the character. It’s odd, I venture, how we feel we need to know the minutiae of Marina’s sexuality. In the film, other characters are constantly asking her what she it, or she’s having to decide between men’s and women’s changing rooms, or official forms ask for her sex… we just want to know everything, even to what’s between her legs.

Lelio smiles. He’s done his job. “I know, exactly. I tease the viewer on purpose. But that’s the game of cinema – to offer enough space to the viewer to analyse from every angle and decide, even if that decision is complicated and fluid. I guess I”m asking here: what is normal? I wanted to test the limits of empathy, what behaviour we will allow from others and permit for others and where we draw the line. And, of course, who it is who gets to draw that line, whose authority is that, anyway?

“Maybe that’s why the film is resonating so universally because as a global society, we’re going through this and everything is in a fragile position right now – sexuality, race, religion, feminism… all of these are undergoing new examinations, new reactions, for and against. It’s an age of redefinition.”

The film itself may wrongfoot viewer’s expectations, moving as it does between old-fashioned melodrama, urban rom com, farce, thriller, and even musical fantasy. As Marina says, exasperated by yet another question: “Soy carne y hueso…” – I am flesh and bone.

“In the end it’s a transgenre film about a transgender character and I was fascinated to hear how much of a challenge to society the transgender issue offers. Why are we so troubled by it, so confused? Why do we have to know her gender? That’s why there’s a pet dog in the movie – I wanted someone who doesn’t have any problem with her sexuality.”

The film is funny, sexy and tender. You get glimpses of many different aspects of Santiago’s city life as well as great music  – the score was written by British musician Matthew Herbert, he of the Brexit Big Band, and although no copies of the Daily Mail were ripped up for any sounds on this film, you can imagine some its readers getting hot under the collar (and maybe other parts) by the complexities of Marina, with her extraordinary eyes and physical grace.

Lelio is in with a good shout on Sunday at the Oscars and, after Disobedience and the Julianne Moore remake of Gloria (the film might ultimately not be called that), his is a name rising to the top of the international film ladder. 

“When you’re from Chile, it’s such a small, closed-in country, very long and thin but very enclosed by sea and mountains, so you are very much an outsider everywhere else. But you’re not very obvious, so you go unnoticed and every boundary you break down feels like a new border,” he says. 

He cites filming in Hendon’s Orthodox Jewish community as a prime example: “It’s a secretive world, not even Londoners know about it, so while the film for me was outside my country, it wasn’t like anyone else knew it either – for any filmmaker, it would have been like visiting an unknown planet.” Although one that serves plentiful chicken soup, I suggest. “And surprisingly good whisky,” he adds.

After Gloria, A Fantastic Woman and Disobedience, I note that he’s made three – indeed four with the remake, or re-visioning as he likes to call it – films about women. “Yes,” he says, “I didn’t realise it until I’d done it and it is being pointed out to me. That’s the truth – I”m obviously drawn to stories of women on the margins, who don’t usually get to be centre-stage. But that’s because we should all be examining individual freedom when confronted by the laws of a community.  And my characters live with the costs their decisions: should they run away and be free or stay and be repressed?

“That’s what my films are about, widening the borders, testing the limits and saying to everyone, you can be disobedient, you don’t always have to do what society tells you is the right thing. There is more than one answer.”

A Fantastic Woman opens in UK on Friday March 2; Disobedience opens on August 24; The Oscars are in Los Angeles on March 4. 

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