Director Sebastián Lelio (Gloria) immerses us in the life of a trans woman in Chile exposed to verbal and physical attacks because of the loss of her partner in A Fantastic Woman, where Marina (Daniela Vega) has lived a quietly content life with the much older Orlando- until his sudden, untimely death. We witness their mutual affection and companionship before he passes, though Marina’s very presence in his life at the time of his passing throws up flags for the doctors and officials in charge of sorting out what happened to him. On top of her immediate grief, she is now a suspect, and rendered vulnerable in a system designed to exclude anyone who doesn’t fit into a palatable mold of a normal partner. Being denied the normal rituals and rites of bereavement, Marina’s strength is continually tested. A Fantastic Woman is both an elegy for lost love, and a testament to the trials that many trans people must withstand in modern day society in order to simply participate. It’s a compelling tribute to those who must endure daily indignities to survive institutionalized bigotry.
Marina is frequently seen moving forward, purposefully walking the streets with a confident stride. In one particularly indelible sequence she battles a surreal raging wind, leaning into the bluster instead of waiting for it to dissipate. Lelio often shows Marina in close-up, her face defiantly and beautifully framed to showcase her looks or devil-may-care attitude. She is not a caricature, but a fully fleshed-out person with ambition and flaws. She is a talented nightclub singer who takes lessons to improve her form while waiting tables for stable income. She loves deeply and takes a lot of verbal abuse before blowing her top. She is above all resilient, used to the cruel and ignorant views of people who do not know her but fear her. Lelio doesn’t exclude sex from the film — Marina is an actively sexual woman, but is showcased as healthy in her appetites, with an occasional will to act out because of ongoing distress. The director well knows that there is an embedded association of homosexuality and different gender identities with perversion. Here, Marina is a person like any other, one who had an anchored life that was filled with the love of a partner, but is now adrift in sorrowful isolation. She’s not an anomaly; she’s human. A Fantastic Woman possesses cautious jubilance, a celebration and examination of how a person can emanate radiance in spite of one’s surroundings.
The frustration Orlando’s former family feels towards Marina for causing the dissolution of his heterosexual marriage is understandable, but not the outright disgust some of them project towards her because of her identity. Living a life not ordained as wholesome by many adds to their detestation of her very existence. Fighting their request to block her from Orlando’s funeral, Marina is an impetuous impasse to a quiet ceremony. She is on a mission to reclaim her importance in Orlando’s life, be allowed to mourn publicly, and to declare the validity of her existence. A Fantastic Woman is a sweet and triumphant account of a woman subject to circumstance who handles it with stormy grace.
Vega’s dynamism and passion are projected exquisitely into Marina, who is in unmistakable peril for being so defiantly visible, and Lelio deftly absorbs you into the danger she experiences as an outspoken trans woman. The warmness that Marina feels for the pet dog that she shared with Orlando drives more interactions with his hostile family, and her quest to retrieve it is so endearing and reckless that one gets the feeling that the plot can veer into abject tragedy at any time.
Marina is assailable every moment of her life. Her public presence is a relevant observation of the current state of trans people’s rights in Chile, and the inhospitable environments that they encounter all over the world. Society’s rejection can permeate and affect even the most basic of interactions, as well as essential access to services. Along with Call Me By Your Name, A Fantastic Woman stands out not just as exemplary LGBTQ cinema, but as one of the best films of 2017, deserving wide recognition for overall achievement.
- Lane Scarberry