One of the biggest names to emerge from Chile’s new golden era of cinema, Sebastián Lelio first achieved international recognition with his fourth film Gloria, a dynamic comedy-drama about a middle-aged woman’s ill-fated romance with a retired naval officer.
This week marks the release of his hugely anticipated follow-up A Fantastic Woman, a brazenly expressive melodrama about the cost of being authentic in a world built on binaries. After premiering at last year’s Berlinale, where it picked up a Silver Bear for Best Screenplay, the film has gone on to be nominated for the Best Foreign Language Feature Oscar, thanks primarily to the remarkable performance of Daniela Varga.
Varga plays Marina, a resilient young woman who finds herself ostracised when her lover, Orlando (Francisco Reyes) suddenly dies. The reason? Marina is a transgender woman, something that evokes disgust and anger in Orlando’s family, who proceed to kick her out of his flat and refuse her entry to his funeral.
The film almost made history, with Vega originally in the running to become the first trans-woman to be nominated for best actor. She sadly missed out, but her performance is undeniably central to the film’s success, something Lelio was eager to discuss when we sat down with him at last year’s Transylvania Film Festival to talk about the film and his career so far.
Patrick Gamble: Historically, films about trans characters tend to star cisgender actors, but you’ve bucked the trend here. You’ve mentioned in previous interviews that you wrote Gloria with Paulina Garcia in mind. Was that the case with A Fantastic Woman and Daniela Vega?
Sebastián Lelio: Not really. We started writing around a story and then the idea of it being lived by a trans-gender woman appeared. Once we made that decision the script writing process stopped because I felt I needed to educate myself more about the trans-experience. I’ll admit I was very ignorant; I didn’t have any transgender friends so I decided to look for a consultant. After two or three meetings with various people they all said you have to meet Daniela; “she’s great; she’s fantastic; she sings, she acts, she has a great personality, I’m sure she can help you”. So I met Daniela and I was fascinated by her.
To be honest, after that meeting I knew she was going to play Marina but we continued to work together for several months. During that time the script began to incorporate various aspects of her life and at the end of the process I asked her to play the lead; she agreed straight away. It was a risk, at that point she only had a little bit of theatre experience and I was asking a lot from her. She had to sing, she had to dance, she had to learn how to drive, so it involved a huge amount of preparation. It was all or nothing really; if it failed then the film failed. It was a lot of pressure for her but I like to think that I create a space of mutual trust for my actors so they know that they’ll be protected.
PG: The film flirts with multiple genres; its part romance, part fantasy, part character study, but what I really enjoyed was how the story feels like it’s trying to become this conventional piece of genre cinema, but Marina won’t allow it to be reduced to something so simple.
SL: Did you know that in Spanish we use the same word for gender and genre? So we say sexual género and cinematic género. Both words are the same. I conceived this film as a transgénero film; so not only is the main character transgender but the film itself is trans-genre; its identity refuses to be labelled, just like Marina. This isn’t a film about transitioning, Marina has already fought that battle and won it, I was far more interested in showing that she’s ready for the world, but the world isn’t ready for her.
PG: There are elements of Rainer Werner Fassbinder and Pedro Almodóvar in your work, but there’s also this dreamlike quality, specifically the film’s opening scene that feels like the cover of tawdry romance novel coming to life. Could you tell us a little about your influences?
SL: I’ve become really interested in the dreamlike quality of the film viewing experience, and Marina’s story felt like fertile ground to explore that aesthetics further. Every time I write a new film there’s always a pantheon of films flying around my head. For example, the scene in which Marina is leaning against a gale at an extreme angle, I was thinking about Buster Keaton; that flamboyance, that excess. But there’s also Louis Malle’s Lift to the Scaffold (Ascenseur Pour L’Echafaud), especially those shots of Jeanne Moreau walking in the rain. The way she looks at the camera. There’s something about this portrait of a woman that felt like an act of cinematic love.
PG: You’ve certainly created a loving portrait of Marina, but there’s also a lot of violence in the film. I’m thinking specifically of the sellotape scene…
SL: Yes, I wanted to find a way of applying violence to Marina without leaving any mark or trace. At the same time it’s so humiliating, it’s about deforming her, because that’s how they see her; they see Marina as a monster. It’s all about creating a triangular gaze, first you see how they see her, and then you’re forced to confront how you feel about that. I realised when I was editing the film, the only person who didn’t have any problem with Marina, apart from Orlando, was the dog. The dog has no prejudice, no judgement, just acceptance. In a way that’s a great lesson; we should learn to be more like dogs. All the judgements in the film reveal aspect of the people that are judging her. They say nothing about her, and in a way she’s like the locker in the film, she’s an empty box that we fill with our own projections, our fantasy and our fears.
PG: Music seems to play an important part in your films, could you tell me a little bit about the process behind your song choices?
SL: For me music is not something that visits cinema, it is very much part of cinema. Although it’s only a small part of the process, it’s one I really enjoy. I always listen to music whilst writing and although most of those songs don’t end up in the film, they become a way of accessing the type of emotions I’m trying to explore. If you analyse the ending of A Fantastic Woman and Gloria, they’re both resemble moments from a musical but I would say these ending are a little more complex. The music suggests optimism for what’s coming but something in the actor’s demeanour suggests it isn’t going to be simple. There are new battles coming, but perhaps they have a couple of new weapons to face what life has to throw at them.
PG: Chile is renowned for being quite a conservative country, did you struggle to get the film financed?
SL: In a way, Chile is like an island. We’re isolated by the Atacama Desert in the north, the Andean Mountains on the east and the Pacific Ocean on the west. Then there’s the mark of the cross, which is rooted in the DNA of our culture. Weirdly, finding the financing for Gloria was harder because people were was like; what’s sexy about a woman in her sixties? And I was like, ‘well…everything’. But I was lucky to find producers who were crazy enough to think I might be right. A Fantastic Woman was much less complicated, probably because of the success of Gloria, but also because the film has elements of a thriller; someone trying to survive, trying to prevail, those are very attractive elements to financiers.
In Chile it’s a very fragile industry. The generation I belong to started making films around ten years ago and we were coming from a moment in Chilean history when cinema had disappeared. During the dictatorship cinema almost died, there were exceptions, but it was very hard to make movies. Everything had been dismantled, the culture was destroyed and many filmmakers went into exile or fell into advertising. Thankfully it was reborn, and I belong to the generation that had access to film schools for the first time in years. Everything was very candid, there wasn’t anywhere to hide, only a genuine desire to make films, so that’s what I do, I make films.
A Fantastic Woman is in cinemas and on Curzon Home Cinema from Friday.
Patrick Gamble | @PatrickJGamble