A Fantastic Woman
Starring Daniela Vega, Francisco Reyes, Luis Gnecco, Aline Küppenheim
Chile’s submission for foreign film at the 90th Academy Awards takes us into the country’s transgender acceptance struggle. Director Sebastián Lelio specifically chose actress Daniela Vega for her personal story, of course her acting skills and vocal abilities were what gave the director confidence in the performance. The film opens on a massive, stunning waterfall with a sample from the films beautiful original score. This will be the most beautiful image we see from the story. Lelio’s script explores the continual struggle of an LGBT partner’s right in both the hospital and after death. A Fantastic Woman at times is torn between the internal struggle of our leading character and the external struggle that often leans toward a soap opera type narrative.
After a night of celebrating her birthday with boyfriend Orlando (Reyes), she’s woken by his painful murmurs. Marina (Vega) rushes the 56-year-old to the emergency room, but he’s no match for the aneurysm. “Are you family,” the hospital staff questions. Orlando’s older brother arrives to explain the situation, but Marina, emotionally traumatized, isn’t saying or behaving in a matter that’s acceptable to the authorities. She’s questioned both at the hospital, then later at the restaurant where she waitresses. Accused of being a prostitute and asked why Orlando arrived with bruises and a cut on his forehead. Orlando’s ex-wife Sonia phones, asking Marina to move out of the apartment she shared with Orlando and return his car. “When I look at you, I don’t know what I’m looking at,” Sonia bluntly tells Marina.
Vega gives a rife performance, even in silence. Her face in every scene is burdened with pain and misplaced defense.
The soap opera warning goes off when scenes or circumstances are intentionaly drawn out, when the audience can spot an easier alternative. Marina won’t simply explain she is the girlfriend at the hospital, she won’t explain the fall to the detective, the script has the character so unwilling to defend herself and the relationship with Orlando, so the trauma will linger. Vega gives a rife performance, even in silence. Her face in every scene is burdened with pain and misplaced defense. The narrative becomes a war between Marina and Orlando’s family, as they get scene after to scene to display their disgust for her relationship with Orlando. Finally, Marina is pushed so far, she gives the family the type of behavior they have expecting all along.
The particular situation Marina finds herself in doesn’t just apply to those identifying as transgender, it could be anyone dating someone seriously that the family doesn’t condone. A Fantastic Woman uses hyper reality in storytelling, Marina keeps seeing Orlando in reflections. This allows the filmmakers unique opportunities for some carefully crafted scenes that give the audience the only emotional breaks they can hope for. Lelio’s film does more for the transgender community than Sean Baker’s gimmicky Tangerine, yet it still embraces familiar stereotypes. The film also doesn’t take advantage of Vega’s spectacular voice until the end.
While can’t break out of transgender narrative stereotypes, it’s still an effective piece of cinema.