I really haven't been watching as many foreign films lately as I should, but I've been doing my best to catch up. Below are reviews of two of last year's big Oscar contenders.
"A Fantastic Woman" is a Chilean film about a transgender woman, Marina (Daniela Vega), who faces difficulties when her older lover Orlando (Francisco Reyes) suddenly dies. Harassed by the suspicious authorities and Orlando's estranged family, Marina struggles to move on with her life and make her peace with Orlando's passing. The film was directed and co-written by Sebastián Lelio, best known for 2013's "Gloria." However, the movie is Daniela Vega's show through and through.
What I so appreciate about "A Fantastic Woman" is that it understands that the best way to get us on Marina's side is to simply let her be herself. Other characters around her may insist on prying into her personal relationships, the details of her transition, and the more uncomfortable questions tied to her identity, but the film treats Marina as perfectly normal, a woman dealing with a bad situation in the best way that she can. Vega's performance is lovely and unaffected, especially when Marina is at her most vulnerable. And because she's so relatable and sympathetic on that level, the fact that she's trans doesn't define her. Instead, Marina's singing prowess, her fanciful daydreams, and her gradually emerging self-confidence are what make her so memorable.
How Marina is framed and shot plays a huge part in this. She's onscreen for the majority of the run time, and the camera doesn't shy away from showing us her body. However, we are always shown Marina from her own point of view, sometimes positively and sometimes negatively as her self-image is challenged by those around her. She is constantly being confronted with mirrors and doubles, as well as phantoms of her late Orlando. I love all the little ways that the camera was placed to emphasize her femininity, and there's one particular intimate shot near the end of the film that is one of the best I've seen in a film all year.
Now on to a much colder and more tragic film, Andrey Zvyagintsev's "Loveless." A Russian domestic drama, "Loveless" follows a divorcing couple, Zhenya (Maryana Spivak) and Boris (Aleksey Rozin), as they're in the thick of the separation process, selling their home and making plans with their other partners. The two are viciously at odds with each other, and their twelve-year-old son Alyosha (Matvey Novikov) is handling the split as well as you might expect. Then one night, after Zhenya and Boris have both spent an extended amount of time away from home, Alyosha disappears without a trace.
As with all of Zvyagintsev's films, the characters' troubles are meant to help reflect the larger societal ills of Russian society. This one pointedly takes aim at the way families are treated and created. As our hostile couple are forced to spend more time together, we watch them rehash all their past grievances and all the different reasons why the marriage fell apart, or perhaps never should have happened in the first place. Spivak and Rosin are very good at trading barbs, but it's difficult to be sympathetic to either of them when their behavior is so awful. However, "Loveless" still works very well as an uneasy melodrama, especially as the search for Alyosha ramps up in the final part of the film.
The frozen terrain mirrors the icy state of the relationship, and portentous landscape shots open and close the film. Inclement weather and long drives through empty, barren countryside also contribute to the miserable atmosphere. This is not the best film to watch if you're feeling depressed. It is, however, yet another thoughtful, touching Andrey Zvyagintsev film about ordinary people going through tough times. I don't think "Loveless" is one of his stronger efforts however, because the characters are so relentlessly unpleasant and the situation feels very contrived. The ending, however, is one that you'd never see in a mainstream American film - and exactly what it should be.