The core story that drives A Fantastic Woman is simple. Daniela Vega stars as Marina, a transgender woman who is in a relationship with Francisco Reyes Orlando. Marina and Orlando go out one evening to celebrate Marina’s birthday. They return to his home, make love, fall asleep, and assume they’ll be continuing their partnership together come morning, ready to organise their upcoming holiday. Those plans are thrown to the wolves when Orlando wakes up with chest pains, feeling dizzy. Marina attempts to help him to the car to take him to the hospital, and along the way, Orlando falls and hits his head. Orlando dies at the hospital, leaving Marina devastated and by herself. Marina then has to deal with Orlando’s intolerant family, a prying police force and a society that appears to work against her at every turn.
Director Sebastián Lelio underlines the immense difficulties thrown in Marina’s path with a pivotal, powerful moment later in the film. Marina has had issue after issue thrown at her, and at a point where it all seems insurmountable, she steps into the street, and walks forward into a quietly increasing wind force. At first, the wind blows her hair back, then as it picks up pace, Marina leans into it, finally, as leaves whisk by at an alarming rate, and Marina struggles to move forward, she leans further into the wind, almost to a parallel angle. What could have been a cringe worthy, literal representation of her fighting against unseen forces just to move forward in her life, in fact becomes a moment of empowerment and strength.
Lelio and Vega do something that many filmmakers and actors take for granted. They allow a character to be built by the story that unfolds around them, letting them breath, and grow, and change as the story moves. There is a care and a rare humanity to the way Marina’s story is told, that when a moment (that in a lesser film) would usually come across as trite appears, it in fact becomes a powerful, empowering moment. Despite all the pressure and the difficulties put in Marina’s path, nevertheless, she persists.
Filmmakers have been exploring trans stories for a long while, but have often employed cisgender actors to portray either real or fictional trans characters. It’s not that long ago that Jared Leto won an Oscar for playing a trans woman in Dallas Buyers Club, or Eddie Redmayne gained a nomination for The Danish Girl. These stories are driven by tragedy, and while it’s great that LGBTIQ stories are being told on screen, there is an undeniable mood of misery porn associated with films like The Danish Girl. Yes, The Danish Girl is based on a true story, but there is an unshakable feeling of ‘oh, you poor person’, which instead of being earnest, comes across as mawkish and offensive. As if it’s requesting the audience to wallow in the sadness and misfortunes poured upon the LGBTIQ community by the film itself.
This is where works like A Fantastic Woman and Tangerine come into the fold, with filmmakers like Sebastián Lelio and Sean Baker working with trans actors to help build an LGBTIQ story that is informed by lived in experiences. Both Tangerine and A Fantastic Woman put their characters in difficult situations, but these characters are never made to feel lesser than who they are. Yes, other characters may misgender them, or call them by their dead names, but characters like Sin-Dee, Alexandra and Melina remain strong, powerful women, forging forward through the hate towards a future that is dedicated to themselves. While these stories contain tragedy, the characters themselves don’t exist to be pitied, but instead to be empathised with.
As LGBTIQ awareness increases, the sad fact is that the level of wilful ignorance that comes with this awareness also increases. Marina and Orlando’s relationship was one powered by love and respect. Orlando’s bruised body leads to a level of questioning from hospital and police officials that proves how toxic society can be to LGBTIQ folk. Marina’s clear explanation of what happened doesn’t fit the narrative that the doctors and police officers have conjured in their mind. In their eyes, the existence of bruises means that, of course, Orlando must have been abusive, and instead of being an unfortunate passing, his death was retaliation for what he has done to Marina. The search to lay the blame for his death outlines the hypocrisy that exists in the systems set up to help people. A straight cisgender person would not be put under the same level of pressure that Marina goes through after Orlando’s death, so why should she be subject to it?
At a time where anybody else would be grieving and getting the support of family, Marina is denied the opportunity to grieve and mourn the passing of her partner thanks to Orlando’s family shutting her out of the funeral proceedings. There are echoes of the tragic story of Marco Bulmer-Rizzi and his partner, David Bulmer-Rizzi, whose marriage was not recognised in Australia after David died on their honeymoon. Authorities refused to recognise the marriage, which lead Marco to live through a nightmare of trying to organise his husbands funeral arrangements. While Marina and Orlando weren’t married, that alone should not deny Marina the ability to participate in organising Orlando’s funeral. But, it’s clear that transphobia extends to the point where Orlando’s family will fully ignore the notion that the relationship ever existed. Ideally, as marriage equality starts to become a reality around the world, this kind of story should start to become a thing of the past, but as A Fantastic Woman suggests, even when the barriers to equality are broken down, there will still be those working to put them back up. Such is the cruelty of the world we live in.
On paper, this sounds like a dour, devastating affair to sit through – and it regularly is – however, Daniela Vega’s stunning performance brings that aforementioned humanity to life. In an ideal world, A Fantastic Woman would help put a stop to cisgender actors portraying transgender characters. After all, Vega displays an understanding, a knowing, a reality that no cisgender actor could ever deliver. Yet, Vega is not just portraying a lived in experience, she is also delivering a truly stunning performance full of wonderful nuance, that ranks up there with the handful of the modern great performances. Her resilience and her power carry her through a traumatic time, taking her to a truly transcendent finale that leaves the viewer feeling optimistic and hopeful.
I would be remiss if I didn’t mention the stunning cinematography from Benjamin Echazarreta. The camera helps seek out the humanity on screen – both the positive, and negative, sides of humanity. A scene that takes place in a nightclub takes on a life of its own, feeling like it’s a world away from that of the streets of daytime. The array of colours in each scene evoke thoughts of the different communities that the pride flag represents.
A Fantastic Woman is why I watch cinema. To appreciate stories that are different from my own. To empathise with those who are different from me, and to understand how they see the world around them. As an expose of what it is like to live as a transgender woman and experience transphobia on a daily basis, A Fantastic Woman is a vital moment in cinematic history. I am beyond eager to see what Daniela Vega does next, especially with her powerful singing voice as well. She is a true revelation.
Go see this film.
Director: Sebastián Lelio
Cast: Daniela Vega, Francisco Reyes, Luis Gnecco
Writers: Sebastián Lelio, Gonzalo Maza