For the first few minutes of Chilean director Sebastián Lelio’s “A Fantastic Woman” (Una mujer fantástica), life seems to be pretty sweet for its transgender heroine, Marina.
An aspiring singer who earns her living working as a waitress, she is involved with Orlando, a successful older businessman. They adore each other and are deeply committed to building a future together.
This blissful existence is turned upside down in an instant when Orlando dies from a sudden aneurysm.
Instead of being treated with compassion, Marina is mistrusted by hospital staff, suspected of wrongdoing by legal authorities investigating the death, and viewed as an embarrassment and an interloper by Orlando’s family – who consider her an “aberration” and immediately begin pressuring her to move out of the apartment she shared with him.
It’s a stark reality with which Lelio’s film confronts us. The notion of unexpectedly losing a partner is dreadful enough, but to be faced with hostility and prejudice in the wake of such tragedy, to be denied the right to grieve the loss – even actively prevented from doing so – is a nightmare most of us are loath to imagine.
Yet such is the insult-to-injury treatment that often awaits survivors within “alternative” partnerships – especially when those survivors are trans – in even the most civilized cultures. Marina, in her struggle to find closure amid the transphobic whirlwind that surrounds her following her lover’s death, serves as a stand-in for countless unsung individuals who daily suffer similar indignities.
She’s worthy of bearing that responsibility.
As a character, Marina is both relatable and admirable. Throughout her ordeal, she maintains her dignity and poise; even when faced with the extreme bigotry of Orlando’s relatives, she manages to remain courteous while still standing firm – putting to shame their boorish and disrespectful treatment of her.
Wrestling to hold on to her sense of self-worth, she responds to a system rigged in favor of hetero-normal identity not by devolving into a spiral of self-pity and self-destructive behavior, but by finding solace in the things that give her strength – the love of her own family (as represented by her sister and brother-in-law), the power of her own queer spirit (as manifested in the self-expressive release she finds on the dance floor), and perhaps above all, her passion for singing. It’s this positive, pro-active approach that allows her to endure the contempt and incivility of her myriad oppressors, and ultimately gives her the ability to stand up against them and claim what is rightfully hers – which she does in a memorable climactic scene that delivers both catharsis and righteous satisfaction to her emotional journey.
Of course, Marina’s strength as a character would be lost without a performer of equal strength in the role, and thankfully, “A Fantastic Woman” has found the perfect match in Daniela Vega – a real life trans singer (the magnificent contralto voice heard in the film is her own) who was originally approached by Lelio to act as a consultant before he decided to cast her as his lead. Bringing the weight of her own experiences to the screen, she creates an unforgettable portrait of resilience. Tender and demure yet spirited and ferocious, the bravery and honesty of her work gives us a Marina who is not only immediately likable but who gains our respect – as opposed to our pity – as the film goes on. The raw power of this performance makes it one of the year’s outstanding turns by an actress on the big screen – deserving of the already-brewing buzz about a potential Oscar nod – and allows the movie itself to live up to its title.
Though Vega carries the bulk of the film on her capable shoulders, there is also some nice work from her fellow cast members. Francisco Reyes does a fine job as Orlando; he generates a deep impression during his all-too-brief appearance, giving tangibility to Marina’s grief and creating a lingering memory which is as haunting to the audience as it is to her. Aline Küppenheim and Nicolás Saavedra (as Orlando’s estranged wife and son, respectively) bring enough humanity to their roles to prevent them from becoming mere hateful caricatures, and Amparo Noguera successfully walks the thin line between professional courtesy and personal antipathy as a caseworker ostensibly assigned to help Marina in the aftermath of her tragedy.
As for the film itself, Lelio, working from a screenplay co-written by himself and Gonzalo Maza, has largely avoided over-the-top histrionics or soap-opera melodrama in favor of a restrained, contemplative approach. Though throughout the story there are omnipresent reminders of the very real oppression of transgender people (the degrading treatment Marina receives from the representatives of “law and order,” the harrowing bullying she receives from Orlando’s son and his loutish buddies), “A Fantastic Woman” chooses to focus its attention on the personal quest for self-actualization instead of dwelling on social issues. These things are neither ignored nor downplayed; rather, they are duly noted as Marina gets on with the business of rising above them. As a result, what might have been a bleak and disheartening tale of transphobia becomes an uplifting portrait of personal triumph – sending a refreshingly positive message into a world wrapped (for the moment, at least) in regressive fear and uncertainty.
As a side note, “A Fantastic Woman,” which is a Chilean/German co-production, is one of five LGBTQ-themed titles that have been officially submitted for an Oscar nomination as Best Foreign Language Film. Along with the others – Norway’s “Thelma,” France’s “BPM: Beats Per Minute,” South Africa’s “The Wound,” and Finland’s “Tom of Finland” – it stands as a positive representation of the community within a media that has been traditionally either hostile or indifferent to it. It’s an unlikely event that these five films would end up being the official slate of nominees but odds are good that at least one of them will make the cut – and if that’s the case, it’s a win for all of us.