'A Fantastic Woman'
An extraordinary exploration of how vulnerable trans women are to mistreatment and bigotry, Sebastián Lelio’s ‘A Fantastic Woman’ is often a harrowing experience. It’s also a story filled with such dignity, courage and a genuinely humanist touch and that it’s almost impossible not to be deeply moved and shaken by the Chilean director’s latest achievement. The film is sure to be discussed in foreign language categories when the next awards season rolls around.
Daniela Vega stars as Marina, a young trans woman in a relationship with a much older man named Orlando (Francisco Reyes). They’ve just moved in together and seem to be deeply in love and happy. Then the older man dies suddenly of a brain aneurism and Marina’s life goes to hell. Orlando’s ex-wife (Aline Küppenheim) won’t allow the woman to attend the wake or funeral, sheepishly offering to pay Marina off for skipping the services. Orlando’s son Bruno (Nicolás Saavedra) immediately moves into the apartment and kicks Marina out. Even the head of the Sexual Offences unit in the local police department (Amparo Noguera) is unnecessarily aggressive in studying and interrogating Marina, determined to discover some sort of abuse in a loving relationship. It’s a horrible time for the young woman, made all the worse by the fact that no one will even let her mourn for her lost love.
Lelio makes no attempt to sugarcoat his subject matter. The treatment of Marina is vicious by seemingly everyone around her. However, it’s never unbelievable. Tiny micro-aggressions and deeper overt abuse pile up from all sides. The audience is trapped exclusively in Marina’s position and perspective, forced to watch and expect all the wrongdoings that pile up. Lelio keeps the film naturalistic, but heightens the scenes for cinematic impact. Things can feel almost Hitchcockian at times through suspense and dread, especially in a subplot involving a mysterious key left behind by Orlando that leads to an answer both painfully perfect in its symbolism and tragically inevitable.
The entire cast is strong under Leilo’s watchful eye, but the film belongs to Daniela Vega, who is absolutely remarkable in the lead role. She fearlessly dives into the humiliation and abuse required, accepting and overcoming it with almost impossible levels of dignity and inner strength. This might be a somewhat heightened exploration of the abuse and bigotry faced by the trans community, but it feels heartbreakingly real and will make quite an impact on even the most hardened viewer. Despite all the rough scenes and sequences, ‘A Fantastic Woman’ remains a hopeful film about love and endurance, suggesting that even in the hardest times there’s always good reason and strength to go on. This is a devastatingly powerful film so overflowing with empathy for a too often dismissed community that it deserves to be seen far and wide.