Chilean director Sebastián Lelio follows up 2013’s Gloria – a formidable comedy-drama about a middle-aged woman’s ill-fated romance with a retired naval officer – with A Fantastic Woman, an extremely sensitive, brazenly expressive melodrama about grief and the cost of being authentic in a world built on binaries.
After a delightfully flamboyant and purposefully kitsch opening sequence, evocative of the cover design for a trashy airport romance novel, we meet Marina (Daniela Vega) and Orlando (Francisco Reyes). There’s nothing trashy about their romance and it’s clear they’re very much in love. Marina splits her time between her job as a waitress and her evenings as a singer whilst her lover, twenty years her senior, runs a textile company. Then one night Orlando wakes up, unable to breathe.
The pair rush to the hospital but it’s too late and he dies of an aneurysm. Despite his death being a freak occurrence, Marina finds herself under intense scrutiny from the police, Orlando’s family and even a government ‘sexual offences officer’. The reason? Marina is a transgender woman, something that evokes disgust and anger in Orlando’s family, who proceed to kick her out of Orlando’s flat and refuse her entry to his funeral. With her head held high, Marina refuses to be pushed around and sets out to claim what’s rightfully hers.
Lelio refuses to be drawn into the hardships of trans life and although he displays an impressive awareness of the issues trans people face, the film’s embracing framework allows the audience to consider how the same refusal to adhere to social norms can be applied elsewhere. Treating Marina with intelligence, sensitivity and, most importantly, humour, the script alternates between dramatic narrative swoops and tiny moments of emotional awareness, interspersed with soaring music video sequences that drench the screen with feelings. However, it’s how the film handles grief and alienation which makes Marina’s story so compelling.
A Fantastic Woman is smartest when Lelio places Marina in everyday situations and invites the audience to empathise with her. Although a scene of her driving along to Carol King’s (You Make Me Feel Like) A Natural Woman brings a wry smile, it’s the moment when she’s forced to respond to the prejudices and exclusion of Orlando’s family with grace and wit where the film really shines. When Marina first meets Orlando’s ex-wife to hand-over the keys to his car it’s clear she’s uncomfortable with her former-husbands lover: “I always wondered what you’d looked like,” she blurts out.
Without given her an opportunity to correct herself Marina replies swiftly with the type of calm assertiveness of someone whose repeated the same answer countless times before, “As you can see…just flesh and bone.” Vega could be the first trans actor to win an acting award at a major film festival and, if she does, it won’t be because of tokenism. She carries the weight of the narrative on her shoulders, delivering a captivating and raw performance. If there was ever any doubt during the film, Vega makes it abundantly clear by the end of Lelio’s latest that Marina really is a fantastic woman.
Patrick Gamble | @PatrickJGamble