A Fantastic Woman (original title Una Mujer Fantástica) (Chile, 2017). Directed by Sebastián Lelio. Screenplay by Sebastián Lelio and Gonzalo Maza. Starring Daniela Vega, Francisco Reyes, Luis Gnecco. In Spanish with English subtitles.
I’ve been around long enough to remember when the only transwomen in movies were either serial killers, victims of severe beatings or the butt of man-in-a-dress jokes. It’s hard to imagine that level of transphobia returning to the screen, but as Marina’s experience in A Fantastic Woman shows, there are still a few people who don’t like us much.
Marina is a singer and a transwoman in a loving relationship with an older man. One night she wakes to find him sitting on the edge of the bed in some distress. Before her panic filled drive to the hospital, he manages to injure himself further by falling down a flight of stairs. Once at the hospital, she receives news that Orlando has died on the operating tale. She is stunned with grief and a simultaneous awareness of the delicate position she is in. She phones his brother Gabo first, knowing he’s the most sympathetic member of Orlando’s family. He knowingly asks if she’s phoned anyone else and when she says no, he tells her not to worry, that he’ll take care of it. Under duress and not knowing what to do, she flees the hospital but is brought back by the police under suspicion she may have been involved in her lover’s demise. Thus begin her confrontations with the police and Orlando’s family.
Marina moves from a position of respect for the family to open defiance after they repeatedly abuse her and resolutely refuse to allow her to grieve with them. The film is about grief as much as it is about Marina’s experience as a transwoman. No one in the family takes the love she and Orlando had for each other seriously. It’s this need to affirm her right to grieve that propels Marina and is the true emotional centre of the film. Her right to dignity is simply the visible byproduct of this journey.
The police first suggest she’s a prostitute and then send a do-gooder detective from the Sexual Offenses Unit who torments Marina with a physical examination because she callously chooses not to believe that she was not physically abused. (The striking physical similarity betwen Orlando’s abusive ex-wife and the supposedly helpful police detective suggest they are not that different.) The family refuses to believe their brother, father, and ex-husband fell in love with a transwoman and behave abominably.
There is so much texture to this film. It’s a movie that bears watching again, if only for the craftsmanship that went into it. The scene in which Marina finds herself in front of workmen moving a large plate glass mirror slips seamlessly into surrealism as she sees the world flowing around her in distorted shapes and movement. This mirror image is common throughout the film. In a thoughtful scene late in the movie. Marina sits nude on her bed with a round mirror over her crotch. What she has down there has been the subject of intense curiosity and scrutiny by the cisgender people who have harassed her. What the director Lelio has done with this scene is brilliant. We do not know what is under the mirror and Marina sees only herself there. What is underneath does not matter.
The pan shots of Marina moving through her landscapes are similarly well thought out and wonderfully composed. Virtually all of them reflect her inner feelings. The scene in which she is leaning at a 45 degree angle and is brought to a standstill by a furious wind is so effective it was used in the movie’s trailer. There are others too which are less dramatic, and which I first took to be literal, but which are also symbolic. After her attempt to visit Orlando’s funeral goes horribly wrong, her walk through a derelict urban landscape of broken down, graffiti marked fences, rubble strewn empty lots and derelict buildings reflects her own inner devastation.
Trans people will immediately recognize the liminal world in which Marina lives. She moves from spaces of acceptance to spaces of hostility. A cleaning woman calls her ma’am and apologizes for not being able to help her. A barista stares at her coldly while Marina orders coffee. It is the exhausting world we live in that simple human interactions cisgender people take for granted become fraught with uncertainty and even peril.
Her need to discover what was in Orlando’s sauna locker forces her through a highly gendered space in which she undresses in the women’s side and then must make her way through hallways and rooms while transforming herself into a presentable male in order to access the men’s locker room. It becomes a kind of harrowing reverse transition, the emotional impact of which surely only trans people can fully understand.
Daniela Vega is excellent in the role of Marina. Since Vega is virtually in every scene and was largely an inexperienced actress, director Lelio has acknowledged it was a risk granting her the lead role. However her performance and her authenticity gave him the freedom to create what he calls a “trans-genre film about a transgender woman.”
If I had one quibble, it was the use early in the movie of Aretha Franklin’s (You Make Me Feel) Like a Natural Woman. It seemed too clumsy and obvious for a film that is otherwise so rich and subtle.
A Fantastic Woman has been nominated for an Oscar for best foreign language film.