A slow, calculated and steadily paced film, A Fantastic Woman packs a punch with glitz, grief, and emotional gore. Directed by Sebastián Lelio and starring Daniela Vega as the titular fantastic woman, this film follows a singer, Marina, dealing with the immediate aftermath of the death of her lover, along with all the horrific physical and administrative violence that come with also being a trans woman.
A Fantastic Woman is a Chilean film and has been deservedly nominated for Best Foreign Language Film. I went into the theater completely blind - no trailer, no synopsis, not even a poster. And after seeing it, I wholeheartedly recommend doing just that. The film is not only visual eye-candy but also a test of the lungs as you’re rendered breathless from the cinematography and the story. It begins harmless enough, showing the life of Marina’s much older boyfriend, Orlando, but right off the bat, the colorful and calculated coloring of the screen holds your attention. There is a lull in the slow narrative that follows Marina and Orlando when they’re together - they dance, they chat, they kiss, they have sex and it’s all very tender. She is consistently in his gaze and we see her happy there.
And that’s when it all begins - with the sudden death of Orlando, the warm and protective life that Marina had become accustomed to is shattered. With Orlando gone, the camera’s perspective shifts and Marina is no longer in the gaze of her lover but in the gaze of the audience, the gaze of the public, both diegetic and not. Immediately, her trans identity becomes the object of inhumane interrogation and scrutiny by the hospital staff, by the cops, by detectives, and by Orlando’s family. At every step following what is really only a couple days after Orlando’s death, we see Marina facing hardship after hardship - things like cops adamantly referring to her as “he”, Orlando’s ex-wife treating her like utter shit, the detectives stalking her and subjugating her to a humiliating physical, and Orlando’s son publicly brutalizing her. She doesn’t even have a second to catch her breath and to deal with her own grief because she can’t. But, in between these scenes, there are moments of quiet resonance; visions of Orlando haunt Marina throughout her days and in those brief seconds, time is forgotten and she is bathed in color and shadows.
Throughout the film, a random key found in Orlando’s car bugs Marina. She later realizes it’s to a locker at a local sauna and she goes to collect his belongings there. It is a separated sauna and issues regarding transgender bathrooms immediately began to fill my mind. Would Marina go to the men’s locker room as a trans woman? What would that mean? But as the scene unfolds, immersed in hues of teal and blue, all those social contexts are thrown aside as we hone in on Marina’s primary concern - the locker and her dead boyfriend. When she opens the locker, she’s able to let out that breath she’s been holding the entire film.
At the end of the day, what this films serves is a humanizing look into the life of this woman, who is not only trans but also in grief. There were plenty of opportunities for Lelio to indulge in the politics of displaying her trans identity, genitals and all, but he doesn’t. Because this film isn’t about that, and it’s refreshing for a film to not only star an actual trans actor but to also focus on the livelihood of its trans characters. The final scene is a gorgeous and revitalizing performance by Marina, who, through singing, is able to move forward.