A powerfully authentic depiction of trans issues, foreign film A Fantastic Woman is not easy to watch, but it is definitely worth it.
⭐ ⭐ ⭐ ⭐
Watching A Fantastic Woman, one gets the sense that the people involved have been waiting to get this ball rolling for a while now. It shows in the ease with which Daniela Vega – herself a trans woman – embodies the character of Marina, and the care that all parties bring to depicting her struggles. The challenges Marina faces feel personal and resonate deeply, creating a sense of cathartic empowerment, with a confident spirit finally being given the spotlight it deserves.
Marina is a singer and waitress in Santiago, Chile. She lives happily with her older lover, Orlando (Francisco Reyes), who we see first, scrambling to find travel tickets he had planned to surprise Marina with. He will never find them. That night, Orlando suffers an aneurysm and dies in hospital, the swiftness of his death underscoring the degree to which Marina’s life is about to be ripped apart. Within hours, Orlando’s family emerges to reclaim him from Marina’s “grasp” and sweep her under the rug using whatever means necessary.
Orlando’s family are something else. If Marina’s character arc seems stunted it’s because they hold her back, sometimes literally. Son Bruno (Nicolás Saavedra) lets himself into Orlando’s apartment, an act that dismisses Marina without needing to say a word. Worse yet is ex-wife Sonia (Aline Küppenheim), who seems “nice enough” until she calls Marina a chimaera and starts using her birth name. If you don’t understand how misgendering someone can be abusive, you haven’t met Sonia; she makes it an art form. Inevitably these slights escalate, reaching their peak with an atrocious act of physical abuse that’s hard to watch.
This escalation is the heart of A Fantastic Woman. You can see it in Marina’s eyes when she speaks to cops at the hospital – she knows that these things are never simple or benign. The cops are just the beginning. Vega brings these experiences to life with authenticity and subtlety. She’s met people like this before, she knows how degrading they can be, and her performance benefits immensely from that first-hand knowledge. It’s empowering just watching her work.
Director Sebastián Lelio is important here as well. He shows himself in select sequences that blur the line between fantasy and reality. A windstorm pushes Marina down until she’s almost parallel to the sidewalk, leaf litter smacking her in the face. Later, a nightclub melts away to give her one last dance alone with Orlando. These breaks from reality express Marina’s grief and frustration in a way that she never could. There are admittedly one too many of them, but their purpose is always clear and admirable, and they are never less than beautiful.
As a powerful portrait of a unique soul, A Fantastic Woman is worth your time. It has an uphill battle for the Oscar for Best Foreign Language Film, but there’s enough meat here for the Academy to give it serious consideration. It’s a gracefully told story, and Vega is magnificent in bringing her own experiences to the table. With luck, this will be the beginning of a new era in representation. With stars like Vega and directors like Lelio, that can only be a good thing.
A Fantastic Woman is available in Australian cinemas from February 22
Image courtesy of Sony Pictures