A pioneering work of trans-centric filmmaking, Sebastián Lelio’s airy, dreamlike direction anchors a fearless central performance from Daniela Vega.
With trans issues being at the forefront of the cultural moment, it’s no surprise that cries for representation in film extend to trans and non-binary actresses as well. Sure, films like Dallas Buyers Club and shows like Transparent have gone a long way toward destigmatizing and humanizing trans characters in media, but there’s still a fundamental problem with those examples – their trans characters are played by cisgender actors. For parity to be achieved, we need to have films featuring trans characters that don’t feel the need to be explicitly about trans identity. A Fantastic Woman, Chile’s Best Foreign Film nominee for the Academy Awards, isn’t just valuable for its representation of trans people in dynamic lead roles – it’s a wonderful, valuable drama in its own right.
Marina (Daniela Vega, a Chilean lyrical singer and transwoman making her acting debut) is a lounge singer and waitress in Chile, spending a wonderful evening with her lover, an older man named Orlando (Francisco Reyes) in the film’s opening scenes. That night, however, Orlando experiences chest pains, and Marina is only barely able to drive him to the hospital before he suddenly dies of an aneurysm.
Amid her grief, Marina must suffer silently as Orlando’s family – he was married with adult children before leaving them for Marina – slowly begin to push her out of Orlando’s apartment, car, and life, exceptionally bitter at the person in front of them they deeply resent and don’t care to understand. All the while, Marina struggles to hold onto some piece of the man she loved, and wonders what to do next.
What shocks and surprises most abut A Fantastic Woman is the incidental nature of Marina’s identity to the film’s story. Yes, Marina’s trans identity is a major component of Orlando’s family’s antipathy towards her, as is her brushes with Chilean police and medical officials as they investigate a possible role in her death. But so is the fact that she is a younger woman who broke up her lover’s family.
The film is a tense cold war of conversations, made through gritted teeth, about dropping off cars and giving back childhood dogs. These, of course, bounce electrically off the entitlement Marina feels to be acknowledged as part of Orlando’s life. There’s theoretically a version of A Fantastic Woman that works with a cisgender woman in the lead. At its core, A Fantastic Woman is a story about grief, and the walls we put up to avoid processing it, that just so happens to include the added context of trans identity.
And yet, the nagging interference of society’s transphobia rears its head in every scene, every interaction between Marina and the world around her. Even well-meaning social workers and investigators, believing Orlando beat her and she retaliated given the bruises on his body when he was admitted to the hospital, misgender her at times, the stammering inadequacies of traditional language around gender doing both parties a disservice. Director Sebastián Lelio (Gloria, The Year of the Tiger) infuses each of those moments with a palpable tension, each aggression minor or major feeling like a gut punch. Whether it’s an investigator coaching a medical examiner to treat Marina like a woman, or a drunken, bitter assault by Orlando’s male relatives, the suffering Marina endures is compounded by society’s marginalization and underestimation of her.
On paper, all of Marina’s abuses smack of a film too focused on self-righteousness and back-patting about the cruelty of the world. Luckily, Daniela Vega’s debut is a real stunner, a dynamic and absolutely fearless performance that demands attention from costar and camera alike. A beautiful face framed by flowing locks of brown hair and a steely gaze, Vega’s Marina is a self-possessed woman, full of piss and vinegar, a soul as loud and beautiful as her countertenor voice (the feature of the film’s staggering final shot). Make no mistake, it’s her film through and through, and she carries the innumerable tons of emotional weight on her slender shoulders like a seasoned acting veteran. It’s no wonder Lelio’s graceful, airy direction can’t seem to take its eyes off her, aided by cinematographer Benjamin Echazarreta’s crisp, neon-soaked photography.
A lock for the Best Foreign Film Oscar this year, A Fantastic Woman celebrates, rather than wallows in, the struggles that trans people face every day to merely assert their existence. Vega, with her confident sway and angelic voice, is sure to become a trans icon – someone who simply wants to live and love and be granted the same consideration cisgender people take for granted. Lelio’s film is as much a ghost story and a tale of lost love as it is a cry for humanity and empathy; by showing Marina in all her beauty and fragility, A Fantastic Woman demands that we recognize her, accept her, and love her. With a presence like Vega’s, it’s not a hard demand to meet.
A Fantastic Woman premieres in Chicago this Friday at AMC River East 21, the Music Box Theatre, and Cinemark Evanston.