A Fantastic Woman ****
Starring: Daniela Vega, Francisco Reyes, Luis Gnecco, Aline Kuppernheim, Nicolas Saavedra
Director: Sebastian Lelio
Released on the weekend of the Oscars, Chilean Drama A Fantastic Woman arrived on Friday in UK cinemas just in time for it to win the Best Foreign Language Film Academy Award. The very first film featuring a trans actress or to feature trans issues to win one of the Academy’s top prizes, the furore of press surrounding its release makes it difficult to see the film within the context of which it was intended and originally released. Yes, this is a story about a trans woman, but it is not the story of every trans woman. It is very specific, both to the experiences of its protagonist and to the Chilean context of the story itself.
Marina (Vega) is a waitress and part-time singer. Having just moved in with her older lover Olando (Reyes) her happiness is short-lived when she is awoken in the middle of the night with him feeling inexplicably ill. Despite getting him quickly to the hospital, Orlando dies, leaving Marina to deal with the complexities of his messy family. His ex-wife (Kuppenheim) wants her to have nothing to do with the funeral. His son (Saavedra) wants her out of his apartment as quickly as possible. Her only support comes from his timid brother (Gnecco), but this is not enough to prevent her from being treated badly by everyone around her. Add to that the police’s degrading behaviour as they try to investigate his cause of death and Marina is fighting a permanently uphill battle.
If A Fantastic Woman hadn’t received the acclaim it has, it would have been received in a completely different light. This is a film with a strong voice, which depicts the struggles of a trans person in Chile very powerfully. With moments of Almodovar-esque fantasy we see metaphors of her struggle depicted on screen, including a moment in which she walks into the wind that is trying to hold her back. In some cases these moments are a touch on the obvious side, but a moment of escapism she finds in a nightclub is realised through a sequined and smoke-machined dance sequence is a welcome upbeat break from what is otherwise a pretty bleak film.
It is this bleakness that is drawing most criticism. This is another film about trans people having to deal with seemingly insurmountable odds. There is little support in place for Marina and she spends the majority of the film completely isolated from family, friends or other trans people. Subsequently, it paints a particularly austere picture of what life is seemingly like for trans people in Santiago. But the fact that this is specific to Santiago means that there is no claim here for universality of its themes or characters. The character of Marina has a very difficult struggle and the film fails to show any real positivity for her, which to a viewer less aware about the trans community could come across as being indicative of the realities of being trans elsewhere. Films from the UK, USA and around the world are indeed beginning to depict these positive narratives about trans people on film, but this specific film does not do that. ]
A Fantastic Woman was made by a cisgender writer and director. As such, it reads like a film that has been made for a cisgender audience. It depicts what the cisgender world sees as the trans narrative, albeit very competently indeed. The film has done what many trans-centric films have failed before in casting a trans woman – and a very capable trans woman, at that – as its lead. However, this is still not a story about trans people told by trans people. Which, for the trans community, is still a problem. However, the struggles that Marina has to deal with are certainly enlightening for its entire audience; she is given no rights in terms of the funeral whatsoever. She is treated with undue suspicion by the police and subjected to a wholly demeaning physical exam that is both unnecessary and humiliating. What’s interesting is the depiction of the investigating officer, who claims to be on her side and to understand what she’s going through, but eventually becomes the source of as much misery as everybody else is.
What shines out from the film like a beacon is Daniela Vega’s subtle and beautiful performance. This isn’t a showy part, but has complex layers that show both her present and past struggles. Marina isn’t an explicit activist demanding her rights, but she quietly stands up for what she believes to be what she is entitled to: dignity, equality and the chance to grieve just like everyone else. This plays out through long close-ups on her face, resolve settling across her features as she stoically refuses to be a victim. The title of the film passes judgement on Marina already, but this a very accomplished performance from a newcomer who will undoubtedly now becomes a familiar face on screen.
The film struggles at times with its pacing, but many of its scenes are underpinned with the tension of threatened or real degradation that is often uncomfortable to watch. In terms of progressive filmmaking, it’s not the positive fully-representative film that the trans community has been waiting for, but it is a very solid film that has brought an interesting new face to the world’s attention. Is it worthy of its Oscar win? Maybe. But it’s not strong enough to make the same kind of waves for trans people as Moonlight did for gay people last year.
OUT NOW IN CINEMAS.