Film Review: A Fantastic Woman

One of the best performances of the year toplines Sebastián Lelio’s stirring drama of grief and identity.
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Daniela Vega turns in a bravura performance in A Fantastic Woman, Sebastián Lelio’s follow-up to 2013’s critically acclaimed Gloria. “Fantastic” is one word to describe Lelio’s film, in which singer Marina (Vega) grieves the sudden death of her older partner, Orlando (Francisco Reyes). A standard enough concept—with the complicating factor being the antipathy Orlando’s family feels towards Marina on account of her identity as a trans woman.

It’s not just Orlando’s family that throws barbs—subtle and pointed, intentional and accidental—Marina’s way. As witnessed by the audiences in early scenes, Marina’s relationship with Orlando was one of mutual respect and love. But due to the age difference between the two of them, not to mention Marina’s gender identity, in the aftermath of Orlando’s death Marina is accused by government officials, hospital workers and Orlando’s family alike of being, alternatively: a sex worker, a victim of domestic abuse, a potential abuser herself, a pervert, a gold-digger, an embarrassment, a man “pretending” to be a woman…everything other than what she is, which is purely and simply a woman mourning the death of her partner of over a year.

Lelio and co-writer Gonzalo Maza make the admirable decision to not make Marina some pure, noble martyr who—through self-sacrifice and purity of heart—is able to convince a hostile world that she, as a trans woman, is deserving of respect. Such a focus could have been handled well…but, more likely, the result would have been treacly and disrespectful, a sort of “Look, trans people are people too!” Very Special Episode for the 21st century. Maybe that sort of thing is still needed—certainly, there are far too many people out there who still deny the humanity of trans individuals—but Lelio’s approach proves much more adept. Simply, he places Marina firmly at the center of her own story—never wavering, never shifting, never shunting her off to the sidelines or making her a prop in service of other people’s personal development.

We see the slights Marina experiences through her eyes. Those slights are both big and small—there are slurs, yes, but also things like Orlando’s generally well-meaning brother awkwardly opting to shake her hand (a more “manly” gesture, one assumes) than hug her upon arriving at the hospital after Orlando’s death.

Through it all, Marina endures. Through Vega’s enrapturing performance, we see Marina’s grief, her hopelessness, her anger—all largely reined in. Through the expressiveness of Vega’s face, we get the message: “This is what I have to put up with. This is what I have to be used to. It’s expected. But it’s not right.” The final scene is a pitch-perfect culmination of what has come before. A Fantastic Woman isn’t about Marina getting revenge, or bestowing forgiveness, or spitting herself up and chewing herself out so that others can grow. It is, simply, about survival: about the strength it takes to be one’s true, authentic, proud self despite the forces trying to chip away at one’s being in ways both big and small.

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