Shared visions, conflicts in ‘A Fantastic Woman’: An interview with Sebastián Lelio and Daniela Vega

Sony Pictures Classics/Courtesy

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The director of “A Fantastic Woman,” Sebastián Lelio, and the film’s lead actress, Daniela Vega, are a dynamic duo.

Vega wore a red dress with a matching beret. Her earrings were light silver shells in the shape of oysters with single pearls in the center — the work of a Chilean designer. It’s a fitting choice, given that the film — about a transgender woman coping with the loss of her partner — was Chile’s entry for the Academy Award for Best Foreign Language Film and is now an Oscar nominee for that category.

“Today, I feel a little French,” Vega said in an interview with The Daily Californian. “So, pearls work.”

Lelio is a bit more serious. After all, “A Fantastic Woman” has garnered a fair amount of attention — especially after a festival run that included a premiere at the Berlin International Film Festival.

He said “A Fantastic Woman,” is, at its core, an exploration of a crisis of empathy. “The film is a vehicle through which you can view the root of the problem,” Lelio added.

And the problem is a big one, according to Lelio: “This lack of empathy … is a crisis we are experiencing as a human race.”

This weighty concern leaves the film with a great deal to pass comment on. Lelio’s invitation to empathize is itself a challenge, one intensified by the film’s very structure. “There’s only one character at the center,” Lelio said. “Either you connect, or you don’t get into the film.”

Fortunately, Vega is a strong personality on and off the screen. She speaks with her hands, reaching out across the table and pulling back, closing her eyes and finding the drama in the moment. But both Vega and her character, Marina, are vulnerable as well. Transphobia and misogyny drive the conflict of the film’s plot in both subtle and explicit ways.

For instance, the ex-wife of Marina’s love interest uses discriminatory language against her throughout the film. In one particular moment, Marina is called “a chimera.” In terms of mythology, a chimera is an interspecies monster — with a lion’s head, a goat’s body, and a serpent’s tail — which one could interpret as a transphobic slur.

The exact weight of this line, however, is hard to dissect. According to Lelio, the usage of “chimera” is a more common insult in Spanish regarding class and education. The attack is a sophisticated one. Lelio recited the exact line by heart: “When I see you, I don’t know what I see. I see a chimera. That’s what I see.”

“There’s a lot of violence in that line,” Lelio said.

“Is it also a euphemism?” Vega considered in Spanish.

“No, it’s very concrete,” Lelio asserted.

Their exchange shows a certain dynamic — Lelio’s will is to interpret the lines as he wrote them, contrasting with Vega’s own ideas about what the lines mean in context. This conflict is more pervasive than one might think.

Michelle Bossy/Sony Pictures Classics/Courtesy

Michelle Bossy/Sony Pictures Classics/Courtesy

In many ways, there is a gap between Lelio and Vega’s breadths of experience regarding the film’s subject matter, as Vega is a transgender woman. It is a question of immediacy — of the theoretical as opposed to the lived. Lelio talks abstractly about “the vehicle,” and “the crisis,” and the “concrete.” In contrast, Vega speaks frankly about how, in her own life experience, she has been pushed towards the masculine or been “forbidden” from the feminine.

Similarly, Lelio is concerned about the manner by which “A Fantastic Woman” fits into literary movements, the appropriateness of categorizing the film as magical realism and the potential for enhanced reality. Vega doesn’t sweat it, saying that the film can just be considered magical realism “to a point.”

However both Vega and Lelio agree on one thing — that which makes Marina fantastic. “She can fly, she can sing, she can keep walking against the wind,” Vega said. Discussing the relationship between the character and the viewer, Lelio said simply, “You can fly with her.”

In the film, flight is conceivably a metaphor for escape, transcendence and perseverance. It is curious that Vega and Lelio should find their united front around a metaphor that so intimately blurs the line between rhetoric and magic. While they may disagree on the role of magical realism, the language used in the film and how the film is experienced, they seem to have found a genuine rallying point around the limitlessness of their protagonist.

“A Fantastic Woman” opens Feb. 9 at Embarcadero Center Cinemas.

Contact Blue Fay at [email protected].