Director: Sebastián Lelio
Screenplay: Sebastián Lelio, Gonzalo Maza
Starring: Daniela Vega, Francisco Reyes
Runtime: 104 Minutes
It’s only an encouragement that the representation of transgender individuals on screen is becoming a more prominent realisation as much as it is a talking point in the cultural zeitgeist. It’s yet to turn the tides completely in the areas of western popular culture at large besides heartening efforts in television and independent cinema, but global cinema is where representation has been flourishing and celebrated in the absence.
Sebastián Lelio’s A Fantastic Woman comes from a well-meaning place; a depiction of a woman’s experiences under specific circumstances, her emotional response to events, but more significantly promoted by the film, its makers and its supporters as a conspicuous exploration and presentation of transgender identity against the backdrop of contemporary Santiago, Chile.
While the film is admirable in its approach to such material, it’s casting of relative newcomer and transgender woman Daniela Vega in the central role of Marina, and it’s tender representation of the changing aspects of acceptable love in a world where the evolving fight for LGBT equality has taken on new forms, it’s not quite the rousing success that it feels it should be given its otherwise glowing acclaim and awards buzz.
The narrative unfolds in the aftermath of the death of Marina’s partner, Orlando (Francisco Reyes), who suffers a sudden brain aneurysm in the film’s first act leaving her to pick up the pieces of her now collapsing world alone. The efforts it goes through in the opening scenes to establish their relationship is among its strongest assets, evoking the tenderest moments and sense of emotional connection from the opening sequences of Up, or better yet the works of Wong Kar-wai.
It’s here that the stumbling blocks begin for both Marina and the film itself. As well as facing the fallout head on from Orlando’s extended family and ex-wife Sonia (Aline Küppenheim), she’s also being stared down by authority figures such as Antonia (Amparo Noguera), who are investigating the case due to the bruising found on Orlando following a fall before his death, suspecting foul play. Of course, this isn’t the only reason, and it exposes the double-edged conflict that the movie and its narrative face.
The very fact that Marina is transgender, living out a life as a woman but with documentation still in waiting, is the core of the film’s dramatic war that Marina is facing. Nearly every encounter with a new face is a new judgement cast upon her, sometimes verbally, in one instance physically, but always physically as characters scan her torso with their eyes, standing at a distance and not knowing whether to address with a kiss or a handshake.
The discomfort it conjures in the audience is effective, but the routine of it – while making a very clear point – feels systematic of a narrative that wants to explicitly indulge in the suffering of its lead for emotional stimulus. This isn’t anything new, and in many ways the film wants to horrify the audience in its bluntness, toying with melodramatic threads and dialogues to reach this end. This is ultimately what the film is, but a more progressive statement might have sought to grant her more agency than she is afforded (at least until the final stretch of the film).
It wants to present a world where she is fighting to retain her sense of self, and Lelio’s direction absolutely conveys this through moments of magic realism. From her battling against the wind in the street to walk ahead to her expressionistic dreams in nightclubs where she dances with a sense of liberation and ethereal beauty adorned in sparkling garments. These moments are where the film comes alive and Lelio can make the most of its visual canvas – beautifully shot and framed by Benjamín Echazarreta – but it’s depictions of surface and reflection are also an artistic diversion from a bigger issue that the film doesn’t appear to see.
For all its intentions as a character study, on paper Marina just doesn’t feel like a real character. We know nothing of her history, her past experiences or loves, or her like and dislikes beyond what the film immediately presents to us as holding significance now. This could maybe be read as something intention, where whoever she was in her past life doesn’t matter now, but there’s such little to work with on a written level regarding her that it just makes Marina’s suffering as a subject all the more nakedly apparent in its undertaking.
If there’s something that saves her, then it’s absolutely Daniela Vega’s performance. Vega is a stunning, brilliantly empathetic and humane performer who plays Marina’s restraint, quiet confidence and moments of emotional outcry so compellingly well that it practically spackles over the cracks apparent to the character. She’s a captivating screen presence, and that the film engages more than visual stimulus alone is entirely down to her.
The comparisons being made to the works of Pedro Almodóvar feel apt but mostly detrimental to both filmmakers. Beyond the immediate signifiers present in Almodóvar’s work – his casting of transgender actors, his prominent explorations of female experiences, melodramatic flair and boldly coded scenery and colour - Lelio’s work favours the grounded with flirtations with the metaphysical. These moments work, but as a piece, it doesn’t sustain the illusion.
As the very real a relatable devastation of Marina not being allowed to attend the funeral service is contrasted with a needless narrative juncture involving a mysterious key, although it does deliver a decent scene in itself where she must strip her hide her femininity to enter a male sauna.
A Fantastic Woman doesn’t quite feel as though it works. It’s commendable motivations and spirit are hopeful, with a terrific central performance from Vega that stands as one of the years very best. But the movie surrounding her feels like it needs to be stronger, to make a point without feeling as forbidding and reductive as it sadly does at points. Lelio has the makings of a masterwork in him, even if he isn’t there just yet.