Although representation of LGBTQ narratives in widespread cinema is constantly on the rise, filmmakers all too often forget about the ‘T’ in the equation. When we do see trans stories brought to the big screen, their protagonists are almost always reduced to thoughtless caricatures and portrayed by cis-gendered actors in drag. Much of what gives A Fantastic Woman its emotional heft is the film’s determination to bring authenticity to its core premise, featuring Chile’s first and only openly transgender actor.
Director Sebastián Lelio (Gloria, The Year of the Tiger) frames a heartbreaking moment in the life of Marina (Daniela Vega), a nightclub singer whose live-in partner Orlando (Francisco Reyes) wakes up in a haze one night and collapses down a flight of stairs. Though she rushes him to a nearby hospital, Marina is too late, soon receiving news that the love of her life is gone forever. Due to the mysterious circumstances around Orlando’s death, as well as his relationship with someone outside of the cultural norm, his ex-wife (Aline Kuppenheim) and a nosey detective (Amparo Noguera) waste no time casting blame on Marina, treating her with contentious scorn.
A Fantastic Woman can be gut-wrenching at times, both in its depiction of crippling loss and in its illustration of the struggles of living as a trans person in a merciless world. However, the film never stoops so low as to delve into corny territory. Lelio trusts his viewers enough to not feel the need to spoon-feed them, and he often eases the tension with hints of magical realism sprinkled throughout (a breathtaking, fourth-wall-breaking Latin dance set piece that would make Busby Berkeley blush is a brilliant addition).The tone can go from intimate and understated to fantastical at the drop of a hat, without sacrificing any tonal consistency.
Although the script (which Lelio co-wrote with Gonzalo Maza) provides enough humanist intrigue to keep the audience onboard, the bulk of the film’s gravity rests on the shoulders of Ms. Vega, in a star-making performance. Her poignant portrait of grief is sold through even the most subtle of glances. While the film broadens its scope past the trials of its protagonist, it certainly devotes necessary attention to the trans issues that many cis viewers wouldn’t have even considered. Whether Marina is being subjected to abject humiliation or baring her soul on the stage, there isn’t a trace of emotion that doesn’t stem directly from Vega’s heartbreaking portrayal.
While it will occasionally settle for the obvious (the inclusion of adopted trans anthem “(You Make Me Feel Like) A Natural Woman” feels a bit on the nose), A Fantastic Woman truly shines as a moving glimpse into the grieving process. Through lingering tracking shots and crisp, vivid imagery – as well as Vega’s awards-caliber turn – the audience is placed into the heart of the film, left to experience the loss firsthand. We’re in a society that often still treats this character’s identity as a malady, and it is gratifying to witness an argument for why it is so intrinsically essential for her to simply live life on her own terms.