A FANTASTIC WOMAN: A Revolutionary Cinematic Achievement
The Chilean drama A Fantastic Woman beautifully captures the story of a transgender woman, who is brought to exquisite life by Daniela Vega.
Some of the most treasured moments any film fan has at the movies are the first times we lock eyes on a brand new performer, who appears to have emerged from nowhere and instantly gravitated towards greatness. Daniela Vega, the titular fantastic woman in the new drama from Chilean director Sebastián Lelio, is one such actress. From the moment we first see her, roughly five minutes into the film, it is hard not to be absorbed by her magnetic presence; an empathetic, humane figure, with one of the most expressive faces seen in cinema in recent memory.
Her struggles are nakedly clear to the audience through the manner in which Lelio focuses so frequently on her face – not since the days of Robert Bresson has a director been so intuitive of the way his actors portray emotions through movement alone. Under Lelio’s direction, this famed Chilean model and opera singer gives a performance that, in a just world, would be sweeping up every acting prize this coming awards season.
An utterly humane triumph
Vega plays Marina Vidal, an aspiring opera singer and waitress in a relationship with a significantly older man, Orlando (Francisco Reyes). On Marina’s birthday, Orlando surprises her with tickets for a romantic getaway in Florida – but their perfect relationship bliss suddenly ceases after Orlando suffers a fatal hemorrhage. After falling down the stairs, with multiple bruises on his body, Marina is immediately receiving constant phone calls from police officers wanting to know more about her relationship with Orlando.
She also finally gets to meet his family – the majority of whom openly despise her for living in his apartment, asking to keep the dog she co-owned with Orlando and for even daring to ask whether she could attend his funeral. But there is one thing about Marina they have contempt for more than anything else: she is a strong, transgender woman, whose loving relationship with Orlando made them feel nothing but a misplaced sense of shame.
The prejudices shown towards Marina aren’t overblown. With the exception of one sequence later in the film, the horror of her daily life mostly stems from having to deal with being mis-gendered and dead-named by law officials, who can’t accept her name because of the slow workings of government bureaucracy updating her personal information. It’s written by Lelio and co-screenwriter Gonzalo Maza in a manner that feels upsettingly palpable. Following uncovering bruises on Orlando’s body, she is legally required for a strip-down assessment by law authorities.
The initially empathetic law enforcement officer instantly calls her by her former name, as well as labelling her a “he”, the minute she believes that Marina is out of earshot. The assessment scene is also handled extraordinarily well by the director; a potentially exploitative moment delivered with utter grace, not least due to Vega’s quietly commanding performance that anchors a humanity during a moment of utter humiliation for the character.
Nevertheless, She Persisted
Without turning into an overblown social issues drama, A Fantastic Woman manages to expertly explore the widespread prejudice and distrust transgender people have to face in society. When even those in positions of power, be they law enforcement officials or doctors, show an open, unhidden distrust of your motives, something has clearly gone wrong in the functioning of polite society. Cinema has come a long way since The Crying Game exploitatively broke transgender taboos, allowing for a beautifully realised character study like this – the sad part is that, from the depiction in this film, society hasn’t bothered to keep up with the progress made in cinematic representation.
The innate humanity shown by Vega in her performance, as well as the brief glimpses of fantastical escapism from Lelio (closer to a grittier Baz Luhrmann than the Pedro Almodovar comparisons suggested by many critics), ensure that the character’s central struggle for acceptance never becomes bleak. Here is a character fighting against adversity, who in a recurring motif we are shown literally practicing boxing moves, transforming a bleak character drama into something far closer to an underdog drama.
Some audiences have claimed there is a Hitchcockian element to the narrative too; the legendary director always favoured narratives where suspicion was put on the “wrong man”, and here, Marina has to show a resilience and strength that overshadows the distrust and accusations thrown her way. It has all the elements of a Hitchcockian thriller, yes – but it’s played straight as an absorbing and utterly human drama.
Despite the specificity in the central character’s struggle for acceptance, her basic human need to attend the funeral of a loved one renders this a universal emotional triumph in many respects. After initially meeting Orlando’s ex-wife (Aline Küppenheim) to hand over some family belongings, she is soon faced down with passive aggression and slurs designed to make her feel shame for even daring to “ruin” the family funeral by turning up to pay respects to her deceased lover. This initial meeting, taking place in an empty underground car park that feels claustrophobic because of the emotional intensity, is exquisitely performed; Vaga perfects the tightrope walk of appearing strong, all while the character is hiding a very visible trauma. It’s hard not to imagine how you’d react in such a situation.
A Fantastic Woman: Conclusion
Make no mistake – Marina Vidal is a fantastic woman, while Daniela Vega gives the year’s best, most transcendent performance in this landmark cinematic role. Sebastián Lelio manages to get uniformly excellent performances from his cast, working with cinematographer Benjamín Echazarreta to help make a film that has a beautiful visual sensibility, albeit one that is easy to ignore because of the rich vein of humanity embedded within the heart of this film. Here, the substance outweighs the style, as this is an empathetic, wonderful and highly significant cinematic achievement.
Which films offer the best representation of transgender characters?
A Fantastic Woman is released in the US on February 2nd, 2018, and in the UK a month later on March 2nd, 2018. All international release dates are here.
“The clock has run out on sexual assault, harassment and inequality in the workplace. It’s time to do something about it.” Read the Letter of Solidarity here. Make a donation to the legal fund here.