The winner of this year’s Academy Award for Best Foreign Film, A Fantastic Woman, is a fascinating exploration of discrimination, love, and grief portrayed through a stunning performance by Chile’s first openly transgender actress, Daniela Vega.
The film follows Marina (Daniela Vega), a waitress and singer, in the days following her boyfriend Orlando’s (Fancisco Reyes) death. The film delves into the prejudice she faces from the medical profession, law enforcement, and Orlando’s family for being a transgender woman. Despite Orlando’s cause of death occurring from an aneurysm, which disorientated him so much that he fell down the stairs, Marina is suspected of foul play; frustratingly, we know these suspicions would not be nearly as heightened if it weren’t for the prejudice against our protagonist’s gender identity.
This discrimination against Marina is evident throughout the film. She is accosted at work by Adriana (Ampara Noguera) who works in the sexual assault department of the police. She immediately assumes Marina was being paid by Orlando, implying she was physically hurt by him rather than in a stable, consensual relationship. Adriana symbolised the embedded societal norms which associate transgender women with deviancy, secrecy, and perversion.
These backward norms are reiterated in Marina’s meeting with Orlando’s ex-wife, Wanda (Aline Küppenheim). This was one of my favourite scenes of the film. I found the setting to be particularly powerful; the anticipation before the meeting ticks along with the fast flashing of a light contrasting with the slow closing of a door, accompanied by a low humming from Marina. All these sounds fill the empty space of the car park as tension builds; such an expansive space begins to feel confined. Meeting underground projects a sense of secrecy, that there is something to hide. These two women, standing face to face, may seem worlds apart but are connected by the death of the man they both loved. The hostility Marina suffers in response to her politeness is a further attack, so soon her courtesy is taken over by a defiance. The engaging nature of this interaction is testament to the strong script by Sebastián Lelio and Gonzalo Maza.
An uncomfortable forced medical examination and tensions with Wanda are followed by a traumatic assault from Orlando’s family, including his son. After being humiliated and hurt, Marina is left to find her way home, but even her home has been stolen from her. This sense of loss is portrayed in how she is followed throughout the film by the ghost of Orlando, grieving for the life she said.
The film does portray the allies in Marina’s life, including her sister, brother-in-law and employer. Orlando’s brother, Gabo (Luis Gnecco), is supportive of Marina, but only from the side-lines. He doesn’t stand up to his family, placing him always one step behind. For example, after Marina arrives at Orlando’s memorial service, which she has been forbidden to attend, Gabo does nothing to defend Marina out of the fear of rocking the boat. His attempts are feeble, marking the difference between a passive and active ally.
An element of the cinematography by Benjamín Echazarreta, and direction by Sebastián Lelio, I found to be particularly profound was the use of mirrors. These include in the sauna Orlando frequented, in the middle of the street and in Marina’s more vulnerable moments. This play with reflection and unfamiliar angles bounces back on the audience; we are forced to look at ourselves and how we understand the concept of identity. This theme of identity is a key thread throughout the film: what makes us who we are and who gets to decide?
The main drawback I found was the film’s pace. Despite feeling engaged, the film at times was slow and disjointed, so I struggled to completely settle in. This fractured style may have been intentional in order to reflect the disruption in Marina’s life but I found scenes would often end too soon. We would swiftly move onto the next moment, the next interaction, without full closure. I much preferred the longer scenes where there was more time to study the characters. For example, a dance scene where Marina is in a magnificent gold and silver tinsel jacket was uplifting to watch but it wasn’t long enough, so just felt out of place. I did hope the final act would pick up the pace but it never really did. Therefore, even with the thought-provoking narrative, it was difficult to fully immerse yourself within it.
Despite this, A Fantastic Woman is a striking exploration of grief in the face of appalling discrimination for just wanting to be yourself.
– Connie Adams
Featured image source.