With a greater push for representation in film and television, we've seen a slow but steady rise in both trans and non-binary characters - and trans and non-binary actors - on our screens. Their representation on television has been swifter, yet important change has been happening in cinemas, from Sean Baker's 'Tangerine' (2015) to the award-winning Aussie drama '52 Tuesdays' (2013). And now, following from the international success of his film 'Gloria' (2013), Chilean director Sebastián Lelio brings us 'A Fantastic Woman' ('Una Mujer Fantástica'), a portrait of grief and resilience that is as magical as it is moving.
When her older lover Orlando (Francisco Reyes) dies suddenly, young trans woman Marina (Daniela Vega) must not only navigate her grief and loss, but also the bigotry and ignorance of Orlando's family, including his ex-wife Sonia (Aline Küppenheim) and son Bruno (Nicolás Saavedra). Determined to be recognised both as a part of Orlando's family and as a woman, Marina fights to assert herself and earn the basic rights of mourning and remembrance she deserves.
Lelio proved to have a masterful touch with female protagonists in 'Gloria', but here he takes his astute observations and attention to detail and applies them to a far more ambitious and stirring narrative, one that extends farther than the story of a grieving woman and into the larger context of a society in the process of shifting its understanding of gender and sexuality. There's an insatiable drive to this film, mirroring its protagonist's determination for understanding and justice. For the film itself, Marina's status as a trans woman is a given, so that even when the other characters react against it, you're always seeing this from Marina's perspective. This isn't about a trans woman coming to grips with her understanding of herself and her gender, but of her carving a life for herself within a modern world not built to accomodate for her socially or legally, and her powerful determination to shift that. Inevitably, a film like a 'A Fantastic Woman' will function as a political statement by virtue of its subject manner, but it never does so explicitly, focused instead (much like 'Gloria') as a character study, causing us to fall in love with Marina and thus making it a much more politically powerful film that it would have been if it were overt. What makes Marina special is Marina herself, not as any kind of "other" but as a human being with a heart that is broken and a soul trying to mend.
The material and stakes of the film may be serious, but Lelio's approach always threatens to lapse into the magical, with crisp, clear direction that maximises its greatest asset - Marina herself. Set against the backdrop of the Chilean capital of Santiago, 'A Fantastic Woman' takes this intimate story and places it against an enormous, modern backdrop, Muriel Parra's gorgeous costume design allowing the bursts of colour and glamour of Marina to stand in stark contrast to the glass and concrete. Lelio's approach to Marina's story is almost fairytale-like, the intense human drama played out with almost Almodovarian flashes of theatricality. These moments are small, sometimes barely perceptible, but capture the sense of this woman moving against a never-ending tide, a wind determined to stop her in her path. Benjamín Echazarreta's cinematography is rich and colourful, each shot perfectly composed and bursting with detail, complemented beautifully by Matthew Herbert's often opulent score. In many ways, Lelio has taken many of the traditional tropes we associate with queer cinema (the likes we see from Almodovar and recent films like Robin Campillo's 'BPM') and weaves them into something distinctly his own, where intimate drama can be complemented by subtle hints at the deeper, richer and heartfelt inner world of the protagonist. Most importantly, nothing about the film ever frames Marina as a victim. It is called, after all, 'A Fantastic Woman', and as much as we are watching this woman in a state of grief and distress, it never ceases to celebrate her beauty and her spirit.
This isn't about a trans woman coming to grips with her understanding of herself and her gender, but of her carving a life for herself within a modern world not built to accomodate for her socially or legally, and her powerful determination to shift that.
And central to all this, and really the film's greatest achievement, is Daniela Vega's performance as Marina. Her work is meticulous and complex, again refusing to make Marina a victim to her situation. The camera adores Vega, every shot capturing her enormous outer-and-inner beauty. This is an enormously brave, deeply moving performance, but that has nothing to do with the fact that Vega is a trans woman herself. Her bravery is in her emotional vulnerability, her willingness to explore the uglier, more unforgiving side of loss, almost without compromise. There are no moments of breakdown, even when Orlando's family are tearing her to shreds. Through everything, we see her holding herself together, with the pain and anger only visible deep within her eyes. This is an extraordinary performance, only made even more so by seeing a trans actor represent herself and her community on screen herself.
The supporting cast are also superb. We only see Francisco Reyes as Orlando briefly, but Orlando's sincere and deep love for Marina echoes throughout the entire film. Küppenheim and Saavedra are unforgivingly ugly as Sonia and Bruno, and the film benefits enormously from the honesty of their performances, a willingness to give these bigoted characters a sense of real integrity. When Sonia uses the phrase "as a mother" to explain to Marina why she can't go to the funeral, I almost vomited in disgust, and that can only be because of how tremendous Küppenheim's performance is, to make something so ugly sound so realistic. This sounds like a weird compliment, but the film is all the better because of Küppenheim and Saavedra's brilliant work.
Rarely has a film been more appropriately named - the Oscar-nominated 'A Fantastic Woman' is exactly that, a thrilling, strangely magical and deeply moving portrait of a trans woman defining herself within a tragedy, a family and a society that does not accomodate for her. Sebastián Lelio's vision is uncompromising and imaginative, wisely built around Daniela Vega's stunning central performance. This renaissance in queer cinema doesn't seem to show any signs of slowing down, and 'A Fantastic Woman' is all the more special for bringing trans characters to the screen with respect, authenticity and great burning passion. Let's hope it has set an example many more will follow.