By Jack Dignan
A single tragedy can change it all. The life we once knew can be flung in a different direction, our plans for the foreseeable future taking a complete 180. Grief hits us like a bus. But grief isn’t the only hardship Marina Vidal (Daniela Vega) is forced to face in A Fantastic Woman, the Foreign Language Academy Award nominee from Chile. She’s a trans woman working as waitress, spending her free time with an older boyfriend named Orlando (Francisco Reyes), who she’s beginning to move in with. But before she knows it, catastrophe occurs, and Orlando winds up dead, leaving Marina all alone.
Marina struggles to deal with the loss of her beloved, but she takes the situation head on, looking to the future. Unfortunately for her, this future arrives in the form of Orlando’s trans-phobic family, all of who refuse to accept Orlando’s love of Marina. She’s shunned out and bullied, her grief further frustrated by the fact that nobody’s letting her embrace it. Marina begins on a personal voyage to inner peace, reflecting on the life she once had and the general public’s inability to accept that way she is.
It’s a transcendent, yet heartbreaking look at the life of this trans woman, throwing us right into the mix of what she’s forced to deal with in day-to-day life. Her life was never perfect, but with Orlando, she made the best with what she had. Through these brief opening sequences, short in runtime but vital to the story, you get a strong sense of the love they share for one another. They’re judgment-free sequences, building the relationship up before it all comes tumbling down. Marina is a character easy to latch onto, first appearing in an almost dream-like bar sequence where you’re not sure whether these two characters already know each other or if they’re both suddenly taken aback by the other’s presence.
Her journey is personal and emotional, and Vega gives the performance of a lifetime. She’s so subtle and nuanced, with brief fleeting moments of genuine anger bursting out. It’s a story told simply, effectively and with as few words as necessary, able to convey its meanings through silence. A lot of sequences rely solely on Vega’s brilliance and her underlying implications. She’s flung into situations she clearly doesn’t want to be in, but Vega tackles it head-on, and while the more degrading scenes are often uncomfortable to watch, the craftsmanship and the performances make this a film certainly worth your time.
Director and co-writer Sebastián Lelio brings his a-game, going up and beyond to explore this really poignant, powerful story of one character’s search for social acceptance. The cinematography by Benjamín Echazarreta is beautiful, frequently still yet stunning, but not afraid of movement, seamlessly and subtly following the characters around. A shot towards the third act where Marina stares down at her naked lap, looking back into her reflection in the mirror, is an all-timer. It perfectly encapsulates everything this film stands for. And beyond that, it’s just a gorgeous shot. Our sexual organs don’t define us. We are whom we are, no matter what gender we choose to be.
I can’t quite find who said it, so to this person I apologise, but I read a quote recently that goes along the lines of “give the audience a few memorable moments and they’ll go home happy.” (Again, paraphrasing here). A Fantastic Woman, however, has more than a few, ranging from jumping on cars to surrealist dance numbers. Not everything feels relevant to the actual plot, especially a fierce scene of brutality that then evolves into a strange sticky-tape related assault, but when the credits rolled, I was beyond satisfied with what I’d just seen. Sometimes, titles don’t lie. A Fantastic Woman is truly fantastic.
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