A Fantastic Woman (Una Mujer Fantástica)
Chile (2017) Dir. Sebastián Lelio
LGBT films are starting to gain traction within mainstream cinema although they are far from being accepted as mainstream. This powerful Chilean film might be the one history will recognise as kicking the biggest hole in the door that has kept this subgenre on the periphery, after winning the Oscar for Best Foreign Language Film earlier this year.
In Santiago, Marina (Daniela Vega) is a transgender nightclub singer and waitress in a relationship with an older man, Orlando Ornetto (Francisco Reyes). On the night of her birthday after a night of celebration and passion, Orlando suddenly awakens in pain feeling dizzy and confused. As Marina prepares to take him to hospital, Orlando injures himself falling down the stairs.
Shortly after arriving at the hospital Orlando dies of a brain aneurysm but because a shocked Marina abruptly left the hospital, the police are suspicious about Orlando’s death. Marina calls Orlando’s brother Gabo (Luis Gnecco) who is very supportive of her, but the rest of the family show nothing but contempt and anger towards Marina, making her life and grieving period a misery.
Essentially A Fantastic Woman is a domestic drama about dealing with grief of a loved one and excommunicating the lover they strongly disapproved of – the only difference is that this particular outlier is a transgender woman. Why does this make a difference? As Sebastián Lelio illustrates with this film, quite a lot.
Transphobia is not something that will go away easily; homophobia is still in existence after hundreds of years, another battle far from won. Leilo is careful not to use Marina as a victim of transphobia and discrimination to change any minds but to show us the pettiness it begets in denying trans people simple courtesies and human rights in life that would ordinarily be afforded to straight, binary gendered people.
In fact, this is the best approach as it avoids becoming a trenchant didactic tale which would have the opposite effect in opening our eyes to this situation, although having a trans actress in the lead would automatically deter some people anyway. Ironically, this gives Orlando’s family a reason – for wanting a better term – to hold a grudge against Marina beyond being simply the unwelcome lover.
No doubt, this would have worked as a conventional drama with Marina being straight but it is a tale we’ve seen far too often – plus the prejudice Martina endures extends beyond the family, to the police, hospital staff, and sexual crime investigators. This wouldn’t even be an issue for a gay woman, yet as soon as Marina’s outdated ID reveals her transition, the perpetrators skirt around this, using ambiguous language as sophistry.
Marina is subject to uncomfortable and hostile treatment from the sexual crimes officers, including a humiliating photo body examination, whilst the two investigators argue over what Marina’s gender is behind her back s it upsets the paperwork. But she suffers far worse from Orlando’s family, not limited to verbal abuse and name-calling but abduction and torment.
Orlando’s brother Gabo is the only one who makes Marina feel included in the grief and while this isn’t explained why, we can concoct our own theories. Unfortunately for Marina Gabo is outnumbered and seemingly outranked by Orlando’s shrew of an ex-wife Sonia (Aline Küppenheim), and his son Bruno (Nicolás Saavedra), who force Marina out of the flat she shared with Orlando and ban her from the funeral.
Yet through it all, Marina keeps her feet on the ground and her head held high with a steely resolve and quiet dignity, even if she inside a confused, wounded mess inside. She knows what she is yet she doesn’t allow this define her as society does and in Orlando, she felt she found a man who was the same as her. And now she was wants to grieve her lost love but is forbidden to because of what she is not she is.
Lelio’s script is canny in that tackles many of the issues surrounding transgender women and transphobia head on but allows Marina to keep her dignity in not exploiting her as one for that shock factor. She appears topless a few times but never fully naked, which creates an air of mystery whilst resonating as being respectful to her in not parading her on screen as a freak show.
Elsewhere Leilo employs the leitmotif of reflections, be it from a bathroom mirror or a shop window, and even a small shaving mirror in a very unexpected place. This is to show that wherever Marina goes or what she endures, she is forced to look at herself – what is staring back at her is the face of a woman she knows she is and not the creature society sees, which is the direction the mirror should be pointed at.
As much as this works, Leilo does tend to stumble in being less subtle, like the use of Aretha Franklin’s Natural Woman, or Marina trying to walk against an oppressive gust of wind. The use of a bright, neon coloured palette and edgy sassiness in the camerawork will encourage comparisons to Almodóvar, but this is complimentary and not derisory and takes nothing away from everything Leilo accomplishes from his own doing.
The intrinsic connection with this film rests with Daniela Vega, a genuine trans actress whose casting is a milestone in LGBT representation on screen. Vega’s commanding presence – large eyes, expressive face, and subtle gestures – hides the contradiction of internal rage and heartbreak. Presumably, she has suffered the same abuse as Marina in real life, making Vega doubly brave to take this demanding but rewarding role.
Labelling A Fantastic Woman strictly as an LGBT film could be doing it a disservice; it is an inclusive social drama about prejudice and ignorance. Fundamentally, a story about love, its minor but provocative hook is enough to turn this convention on its head and make us think. Simple, startling, sensitive, sublime.