It’s easy to see why A Fantastic Woman, a Chilean drama, is nominated for “Best Foreign Language Film” in this year’s Oscars. It’s a beautiful, empathetic depiction of a trans woman and all of the obstacles she faces.
Marina (Daniela Vega) is a talented singer whom we first meet performing in a nightclub singing a song about how “your love is like yesterday’s newspaper.” She has just moved in with an older man, Orlando (Francisco Reyes), when he falls ill and dies. Dealing with the grief of the loss of her love is compounded when she faces aggressions both micro and macro from Orlando’s family, the police, and society at large because of her status as a trans woman.
Her performance is heartbreaking and layered as we see her deal with her grief while also fending off so much else. It’s hard to watch at times because director Sebastián Lelio puts us through the same emotional journey. But it’s beautiful and complex in ways most films about dealing with loss and grief aim for, but never quite reach.
We are also taken on a journey, falling in love with her and seeing why Orlando fell for her too, as we see just what an amazing, talented, thoughtful, emotional person she is.
And this is going to sound strange, but this is also one of those films where you should also put the politics of it aside for a moment and just enjoy it for how beautiful a film this is. The film’s use of various kinds of light is fun and gorgeous. They also use reflective surfaces and mirrors throughout the film to great effect, although it at times gets a little bit too on the nose. We also get a gorgeous sense of place and a love of the city of Santiago, from its hills to its city streets to its nightclubs, Chinese restaurants, and opera houses. This could have been any city we are more familiar with — Los Angeles, Vancouver, New York, Miami — but it uses its place so beautifully to make us feel at home. Putting the politics back in to this for just one moment, you can plainly see that Santiago is no “s#!thole.”
Now with the politics back, you can’t understand this film as anything but a broadside against those who would deny trans people equal treatment in our society. Can you watch how Marina is treated through the film by Orlando’s family, the police who suspect her of somehow being involved with his death, and society in general and really think this is right?
It should also bring to mind the fact that trans women are far more likely to be victims of violence than almost any other segment of society. The humiliation Marina endures is almost comical in how juvenile it is — if it wasn’t so hate-filled and traumatic. Again, this goes to director Lelio’s touch here. It’s never so overwhelming that we have to look away, but it’s still emotionally resonant and we feel the greatest empathy for Marina. For example (minor spoiler– skip to end of paragraph if you don’t want to know) at one point, Marina is forcibly taken into a car by one of Orlando’s sons and his friends, called “faggot” repeatedly, and then has her face disfigured by being wrapped up in an entire roll of scotch tape. In a lesser director’s hands, this could have gone two ways– either overly comical and not serious enough, echoing the classic scene where Pee Wee Herman plays with tape on his face in Pee Wee’s Big Adventure, or being overly traumatic and hard to watch as sort of post modern tarring and feathering. The fact that it threads the needle so well is a testament to this director and the actors knowing exactly what they’re doing.
Una mujer fantastica hits theaters in limited release this weekend, just in time for us to see Daniela Vega present at this weekend’s Academy Awards, and to see whether this wins Best Foreign Language Film. It’s certainly worthy of the nomination.
4 out of 5 stars