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Max Pallocchini

An Interview with Sebastián Lelio

27 February 2018 Nick Chen

Chilean director Sebastián Lelio’s A Fantastic Woman is really as fantastic as you’ve heard. The nuanced, visually arresting drama, which comes out this Friday, also happens to be the frontrunner for the Best Foreign-Language Film at the Oscars this weekend. If Lelio ends up on the podium making a speech, it’ll be a much-deserved winner.

The fantastic woman of the title is Daniela Vega, a transgender actress who plays Marina, a transgender waitress and singer. One evening, Marina enjoys a romantic birthday meal with her older partner, Orlando (Francisco Reyes) when suddenly, Orlando suffers an aneurysm and dies, leaving Marina in a state of mourning.
 
From there, it only gets worse for Marina as she’s subjected to abuse from pretty much everyone. Medical staff will only call her Daniel (the name on her ID), a suspicious detective instructs her to strip naked in case her body reveals any clues, and Orlando’s relatives relentlessly attempt to ruin her life. Marina is not only uninvited from the funeral, but she’s consistently told her loving relationship was “just perversion” and that she should “go and destroy someone else’s family”. In response, Marina – forced to go it alone – fights back, and each scene is a testament to a woman with more inner strength than the transphobes around her.


For Lelio, it’s his fifth feature  and first since Gloria, the 2013 arthouse hit about a disco-loving older woman who still leads an active sex life. “Gloria was an unexpected success. After that, I felt this open territory of potential, and I really wanted to get myself into new problems.”
 
Oddly enough, Lelio and his co-writer, Gonzalo Maza, originally conceived of a story about a cisgender couple. Along the way, the director had a brainwave: “What would happen if the person you love dies in your arms, and that’s the worst place for that person to die – because you’re the rejected one, the unwanted? And then the idea of this happening to a transgender woman appeared.”
 
At first, Vega was just a “friend of the project”. With minimal acting experience, she was there, primarily, to offer first-hand descriptions of her life as a transgender woman during the writing process. “Then I realised I was not going to make the film without a transgender actress,” Lelio says. “The beauty of everything is that I had Daniela in front of my eyes, and I wasn’t seeing her yet. Almost a year later, I realised Daniela could play it. She was the one.”
 
Vega appears in practically every frame of the film. It’s a towering, awe-inspiring performance that occasionally veers into dream territory: Marina’s almost literally blown away when the weather turns against her, and she stars in her own intricately choreographed musical number as a form of escapism. Yet the performance is also enigmatic and internal; step by step, she becomes a mistreated victim who can’t lash out against every incoming micro-aggression, or else she’ll never get anything done.


To prepare for these quieter moments, Vega was asked to watch Louis Malle’s 1959 classic Elevator to the Gallows. “It’s the way Malle films Jeanne Moreau,” Lelio explains. “It’s a similar process of mourning. The way she moves, and how the camera observes her.” Of course, another influence was Vega herself. “The script came to absorb a few things from Daniela’s personality, like the fact that Marina is a singer. Many of the things Marina hears comes from me asking Daniela about her life and what people tell her.”
 
There are so few transgender protagonists, especially ones played by transgender performers, in TV and movies. Did Lelio feel a responsibility to make Marina a likeable person? “I think characters should be complex,” the director replies. “In this case, Marina is more of an enigma. We don’t know much about her. That’s why we project our own fears and desires upon her. We see how others call her names and define her; but by doing that, they don’t reveal anything about her, they just expose themselves. Sometimes Marina looks at us, straight into the lens, and asks, ‘What do you see?’ She’s very neutral, I would say.”

A Fantastic Woman also arrives at an important time for trans rights, especially in an era of Donald Trump. “To my surprise, between the writing process and the film’s release, the world shifted 180 degrees towards the Middle Ages,” Lelio says. “Brexit, Europe, all the extreme right-wing re-emerging, Trump – it’s insane. Suddenly, all of that was happening while the film was being developed. So to my surprise, the film became more urgent and timely.”
 
That said, Lelio wants his movie to be more than a political statement. “Films should be more complex than the cause they mention,” he adds. “I was, of course, focused on its potential timelessness, which is the only thing you should care about when you’re making a film.”
 

Lelio’s next film, Disobedience, a lesbian love story starring Rachel McAdams and Rachel Weisz, has already won rave reviews on the festival circuit. “Disobedience is a film about women as well,” he says. “They’re women on the fringes of society who are put in the centre. They’re fighting for unconventional ways of being, of loving. The film observes that struggle, that process, and in that sense it has a connection with my other films.”
 
Intriguingly, Lelio has just finished shooting an English-language remake of Gloria with a cast of Julianne Moore, Michael Cera and John Turturro. The director doesn’t want to discuss it too much right now – the plan is for festival screenings later this year – but has he considered reworking A Fantastic Woman as well?
 
“No, no!” Lelio laughs. “I don’t think I would remake it. But I do believe that it’s not only musicians who have the right to play their songs more than once. That’s what happened to me with revisiting Gloria. I enjoyed it immensely, revisiting my materials and finding a new life. But with A Fantastic Woman, it’s too soon, and I want to do other stuff.”
 
In Spanish, the director explains, the word “género” means both “gender” and “genre”. So he considers A Fantastic Woman to be a “trans-género” film. “It’s a romantic film, it’s a thriller, it’s a funeral movie, it’s a character study, and it had all these fantasy moments. It was hard to make everything co-exist, but it ended up working somehow.”
 
On the matter of the Oscars, Lelio still hasn’t written a speech: “I wouldn’t know what to say; I’ll think about it two days before”.
 
A Fantastic Woman opens in UK cinemas on March 2
 
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