Directed by: Sebastian Lelio/2017
U.S. Wide-Release Date: March 2, 2018
Originally released internationally in 2017, the 2018 Oscar nominated film A Fantastic Woman, or its original title of Una Mujer Fantastica, is opening wide in the U.S. on March 2, 2018, following a limited release in February. A Fantastic Woman is a film born out of Santiago, Chile and the film is entirely in Spanish with English subtitles. Its director, Sebastian Lelio, is known for having his films explore the modern Chilean society and all its complexity in very direct and honest presentations that do not seek to cover up the aspects of one’s own culture that they might not be proud of. If art is to truly be a mirror that gives us the full picture of what we are looking at, it must be an honest assessment. That continues to be true for his latest film, A Fantastic Woman.
The story is of Marina Vidal (Daniela Vega), an aspiring singer, who sings in the clubs at night, and works as a waitress by day. While young, and in her 20’s, she is dating and living with a 57-year old man named Orlando (Francisco Reyes). The film begins following Orlando as he relaxes at the spa, and gets a message, before heading off to work. After losing a print-out, he heads out to the club where he sees Marina singing, before they head out to celebrate her birthday. It is there that he admits to forgetting where he put the print-out of the confirmation to head off to a beautiful destination. They eventually head off to the clubs to dance, before heading home to make love and fall asleep.
At this point in the film, there is nothing extraordinary about Orlando’s life, nor the life he shares with Marina. The editing is done in such a way to create this notion, even in the way Orlando and Marina kiss and demonstrate physical affection. But as the next scene unfolds, the perspective changes, and so does the way the camera presents Marina to the audience, becoming more of a mirror to the society from Marina’s vantage point.
When Orlando wakes up short of breath, Marina is desperate to get him to a hospital. This involves the mundane: getting dressed, making sure you have the car keys, locking up the apartment, and so forth. It also carries with it the tragedy of life beginning with Orlando stumbling down the stairs before taking a fall and cutting his forehead, the long ride to the hospital, and the devastating news the doctors deliver to Marina of Orlando’s passing. We see the giving of Orlando’s personal items to Marina, along with a voyeuristic camera that follows her into the bathroom peering under the stall as she drops to the floor sobbing. When Marina eventually gathers herself and calls a family member for Orlando before fleeing the hospital, the tone of the film shifts as we learn that Marina has no say in anything as it relates to Orlando due to the fact that Marina is a trans-gendered person, born a man, and currently transitioning into a woman.
The rest of the film is the struggle of Marina to simply grieve the loss of a loved one, and the toll that exacts on her in the mundane details. When showing her ID to a police officer, having to argue about the name of Marina, since that is not her official name. The police then addressing her as “sir”, and having to go and endure the humiliation of having to take pictures at the police station of her body to verify that Orlando’s death wasn’t a domestic dispute since the doctors and police saw the bruising and contusions on his body from his fall on the stairs.
If these are inconveniences, they are escalated as Orlando’s son and ex-wife are trying to deal with Orlando’s affairs. This includes taking back the apartment Marina shared with Orlando, to sell it, leaving Marina homeless. It means taking back the car, and even Diabla, their dog. And because of the family and their anger of how Orlando had left his family, and their disapproval of him being with Marina, who is still biologically a male, that anger is now directed towards Marina as she is not invited to any of the services being held in his honor. The film then becomes Marina’s journey of gaining enough confidence to assert her feelings enough to try to honor the man she loved, and to take a stand against Orlando’s family to simply get her dog back. Through it all, we see an individual broken, whose music may be the only thing sustaining her when all else is lost.
The mirror of the camera captures Santiago’s cultural dealings with trans-genderism at the micro level, letting the narrative arc of the film in that culture apply to the general experience of trans-gendered persons in most cultures, in a more macro sense, especially in the West. Orlando’s ex-wife, expresses an anger towards Marina, stating that it is her desire to protect her young daughter from seeing this man (Marina), who “thinks” himself to be a woman, since “he” (Marina) was responsible for keeping daddy away. This develops into an awkward exchange where she asks Marina “what are you?”, or “Aren’t you a man?”, citing she is equipped with the biological parts of a man. This exchange captures a lot of the feelings people express about trans-gendered persons, and puts it on the screen, warts and all. We see Marina deal with it in grace, humility, and also the pain she feels as she absorbs this anger. Some of this vitriol, she knows might be borne of the grief the family is feeling over Orlando’s loss….the same grief she is feeling. Some of it is something else entirely, like the way Orlando’s sons decide to “deal” with Marina.
The urban cinematography is beautifully shot, and Lelio captures each scene much like a documentarian, letting us see the close shots of intimate exchanges revealing the full range of emotions that accompany loss and grief, as well as the way a whole minority group of people are treated in society at large. Daniela Vega, who plays Marina, is a trans-woman herself, from Santiago, giving this film a much more immediate feel, and an authenticity to the emotions and positions of each viewpoint in the culture as it relates to transgenderism. Those in the LGBTQ community who will champion the notion of a trans-woman playing the role of the transgendered person in the film may also find themselves not agreeing with how most of the film portrays Marina as a victim. While that is not necessarily the way the film’s final statement encapsulates her, it is a way that many viewers might see her.
A Fantastic Woman, or Una Mujer Fantastica, is a heartbreaking tale of one trans-woman’s downward spiral following the loss of a loved one, and her attempt to overcome that loss. On the other hand, it is a subject matter that will continue to provoke cultural debate wherever it is found. The fact that it has been nominated for an Academy Award will only only raise its profile in that larger debate as a whole, especially if it wins.