A Fantastic Woman

Sebastián Lelio (director), Benjamín Echazarreta (cinematographer), Soledad Salfate (editor)
Daniela Vega, Francisco Reyes, Luis Gnecco, Aline Kuppenheim, Nicolas Saavedra, Amparo Noguera, Nestor Cantillana, Antonia Zegers, Sergio Hernandez (cast)
Released February 12, 2017 (Berlin), April 6, 2017 (Chile)

Marina and Orlando enjoy a night out to celebrate their relationship, which is only a year or so old. Marina has just moved in with the much older Orlando, who showers her with affection and the gift of a promised trip to a national waterfall park. The tickets went missing while Orlando was at the spa, but he can reprint them, he reassures her. Their love for each other is obvious, but it’s more soft realism than high romance. Daniela Vega (Marina) and Francisco Reyes (Orlando) have a keen awareness of each other’s bodies and move through each other’s space like practiced lovers, but without fairytale choreography. Orlando is middled-aged and feeling it. Marina is young and considerate of him even while she teases. They have a comfortable domesticity that speaks of time spent growing into each other, rather than a whirlwind relationship.

These scenes, which follow a pre-credits open at the base of the waterfall in a cloud of mist, are framed with a light hand by director Sebastián Lelio and cinematographer Benjamín Echazarreta. No swelling music, spot lighting, or any of the other tricks often used to indicate a new infatuation. Instead, Marina and Orlando seem to be at the start of something that should and will last. A rare May-December romance that gives the other exactly what they need. 
Later that night Orlando dies from an aneurysm. Marina navigates a harrowing night–waked by her lover in the night; him falling down the stairs while she tries to collect her keys and close the door; a desperate ride to the hospital; the numbness of waiting; and the shock of loss–that only gets worse when a hospital administrator becomes suspicious of her and her account. After learning that Orlando died in hospital, she leaves, slowly making her way home in a daze, but is picked up by two cops who’ve been dispatched to bring her back to the hospital for questioning. The administrator is convinced that she must have hurt Orlando for no other reason than she is trans. He misgenders her and then asks if the situation was “complicated” — was she perhaps defending herself?

He’s not the only one to assume that Marina and Orlando’s relationship was abusive, or a paid arrangement, or the casual indulgence of a bored, older man. Once the police start investigating Orlando’s death, Marina is hounded by their mingled concern and suspicion. While some well-meaning officers and forensics professionals take care to correct colleagues about Marina’s gender, their concern for her is every bit as patronizing, cold, and dehumanizing as Marina’s first interactions at the hospital. She is forced to undergo an examination for sexual assault, for example, exposing and posing her body to a male forensic photographer, while a female cop watches, blank-faced and unapproachable.

The institutional transphobia Marina faces is paired with violent rejection by Orlando’s surviving family. They want her out of her and Orlando’s apartment. They don’t want her at the wake or funeral. They offer to “buy her off” even as they level transphobic slurs at her, and when that doesn’t work they threaten her with violence. They even take Orlando’s dog back “home” to the family that seems to have cut them both off, back when Orlando began a relationship with Marina. It quickly becomes the worst week of Marina’s life, but she is determined to assert her rights, her personhood, and to get her fucking dog back. Vega is incredible in all of these scenes, fully occupying the screen with a presence that oscillates from fury to the stark horror of grief. Like Marina, Vega is a trained singer and uses her voice — whether in front of an audience or singing to herself — as yet another instrument in her performance of the character. She inhabits Marina, in body and voice, completely.

A Fantastic Woman is not a wholly literal film. Marina’s grief is externalized in her environment. Gales blow up when she is struggling to keep on fighting. The cityscape becomes subtly desolate when she feels like there might be no hope. The film opens with that waterfall mist, and images of water and mist reoccur throughout the film. In the spa, that mist is threatening. At the waterfall, it is freeing. And Orlando follows her, an outline in a crowd, an after image, or even momentarily made solid. None of this is bombastic. The movement from depicting “what is happening” to “how Marina feels” doesn’t feel like a stylistic departure at all; it’s just another layer. Vega supplies a naturalistic counterpoint to these dreamier sequences that keep them from being jarring, a note-perfect flourish.

That Vega is a trans woman is crucial to the film’s success. A Fantastic Woman is not a distant imitation, nor a gross appropriation of trauma in a reach for awards glory. In a Q&A after my screening of the film, director Sebastián Lelio said that there would have been no point in making the film with a cis star; its purpose would have been defeated from the start. His attitude is reflected in the blessed absence of cis saviours in the film, and in how the focus is always first and most importantly on Marina. A Fantastic Woman does not ask you to understand or sympathize with her abusers, but nor does it depict them as unearthly monsters. They are just people. Terrible, ordinary people who use institutional power and social privilege to hate and hurt. And their feelings and experiences are never as important as Marina, the undisputed star around which the film orbits.