Day Four: All About My Mother (Pedro Almodóvar, Spain, 1999)
Seeing Law of Desire at the World Film Festival in Montreal in ’87 started a life-long love affair with his work. A retrospective at TIFF a year or so later cemented the relationship. I interviewed him just after, in his flat in Madrid, and several times since. I can measure my adult life, where I lived, and the flow of all my important relationship through his films. I cried to this song from Kika for almost a whole year after the break-up of an early long-term relationship which coincided with the film’s release in 1993. On another day I would have chosen another of his films. Today it’s All About My Mother because I saw All About Eve on TV last night. I remember doing a day school at Film House in Edinburgh when the film came out, and watching all these middle-aged, middle-class ladies come in with their House of Fraser bags and thinking ‘shit. How are they going to react to a film with transvestite hookers, nuns dying of AIDS, etc etc.’ Within half an hour the whole audience was as one in tears (and in laughter). It reminded me of Almodóvar’s great ability to get practically any audience to identify with and feel for those whom their society most marginalises and oppresses. It’s a gift he’s not been making much use of recently.
Like the lovers in Wong Kar-Wai’s Happy Together (1997), Marina (Daniela Vega) and Orlando (Francisco Reyes) dream of visiting the Iguazu Falls. Marina and Orlando have just moved in together, and in fact Orlando has bought tickets to go. But he’s older, can’t remember where he’s put them and offers her an IOU. That evening, they go to bed in their usual manner but he suffers an aneurysm during the night. As she searches for the car keys, he goes out the door and falls down the stairs. At the clinic, they ask Marina about her relationship with Orlando, begin to twitch that she’s transgender, and the problems begin. As Orlando is declared dead at the clinic, those problems will get worse.
The police arrive, and since the change in her ID is still in process, insist on addressing her as a man and treating her as a criminal rather than a bereaved partner. Gabo, Orland’s brother, arrives and apologises to Marina, ‘I’m sorry you had to go through this.’ But his obligation is to ‘the family’, which she is most emphatically excluded from. Soon, the ex-wife comes in to kick her out of the apartment that is the home she shared with Orlando. It starts off polite but ends up being forceful; the police come in, ostensibly to help, but really to humiliate her; the son and his friends will kidnap Marina, distort her face with tape, and dump her on a side street. I expected much worse and find it interesting that the film chooses to end it there and not focus more on physical violence.
The violence in A Fantastic Woman is all psychological but no less powerful for that. Marina is denied her history, her identity, her relationship, her apartment, her dog; and even the right to mourn the person she loved, which she insists is a human right. Any gay man d’un certain age will be familiar with this story, particularly those who lost loved ones at the height of the AIDS years and before wider legal and social acceptance of homosexuality. The partner who you loved and cared for dies and you’re left with not even a place at the funeral in case your very presence might offend the congregation. The fight for trans rights is a logical continuation of the fight for lesbian and gay rights; this film vividly, in a very personal way, demonstrates the hows and whys.
A Fantastic Woman is a complex and fascinating meditation on mourning and on the complexities of identity. Instead of, as is typical, showing us Marina’s effects on people, everything, including that effect, is filmed from her point of view. Her feelings, identities, wishes, desires, dreams are the focus on the film. And people’s well meaning but ignorant, passive-aggressive and ultimately violent denial of her humanity is what the film movingly demonstrates. But she will withdraw, survive and live to fight another day, and with beautiful music.
The film is imaginatively shot by Benjamín Echazarreta and there are some very striking and evocative images. The film is directed with a poetic touch as well, as it moves into dance numbers to evoke Marina’s feelings; dream sequences that evoke the complexities of her situation and her desires, and there are thrilling musical moments, first when Marina performs a salsa song in a nightclub (Periodico de ayer) later, the classic numbers she sings, particularly at the end (Handel’s Ombra mai fu).
The film has been compared to Almódovar’s work, which surprises me. Yes, there is a transgender protagonist; and yes, it’s a great film. But what strikes me most about this film is the absence of camp. Marina is strong and she suffers; and there are moments of rage; but it’s her quiet, polite, elegant, strength that is the focus of the film. In her home, she might box away her frustration. But on the street she’s soft-voiced, cultured, polite with a quiet strength that will not compromise winning a particular battle for the thrill of an easy laugh. It’s the quiet strength necessary to achieve justice, one embodied by Daniela Vega’s impassive but understanding gaze, that is to me the central thrust of the film. Particularly, in instances where she gazes directly at the camera, as if saying, ‘bear witness to what the world is doing to me; to what it takes for me to live in this world, your world’. I’d like to see it again.