A Fantastic Woman Review
There is an old adage of “show, don’t tell” and how it’s always better to get the story across through what is happening rather than heavy exposition. It’s something that is very true in film; monologues have their time and place, but the best films use the abilities of their actors and trust in the audience to keep-up and follow without hand-holding. Such is the case with Sebastián Lelio’s A Fantastic Woman; a movie that says so much, but very little of it is verbal.
The film follows Marina, a waitress and singer, who after the death of her much older boyfriend Orlando faces hostility and suspicion from those around her, particularly the authorities and Orlando’s adult son and ex-wife, their prejudice against Marina deeply rooted in the fact that she is a transgender woman. Actress Daniela Vega - who is the first openly transgender actress and model in Chile - in her onscreen debut is a revelation, bringing an award worthy portrait of perseverance and strength. So much of the film is in her face and in her reactions, that you cannot afford to take your eyes off of her for a second; and Lelio knows this, keeping her in the forefront of every shot she’s in.
There’s a recurring motif of mirrors and reflections in the film, appropriate when Marina’s life and very existence is being questioned and reflected upon by those around her. The responses to her very existence range from polite, if clearly uncomfortable, sympathy to coldness to outright aggression and violence. Even a police detective who initially seems sympathetic towards Marina becomes harsh and subjects her to unnecessary investigation and humiliation. It is heartbreaking to watch; even more so when you can plainly see on Marina’s face that this is not the first time she has faced treatment like this.
Marina isn’t allowed the space to grieve like anyone else would, banned from Orlando's funeral and treated like a dirty secret to be hidden away and denied, and so cannot process or begin to accept her loss. It leads to some wonderful and, at times, heartbreaking moments where her emotions burst forth. It is these visually stunning instances that are a break from the more stark realism which is evident for most of the film. She is desperate to have some kind of lasting connection to her love and the, clearly happy, life they had together, and refuses to be placated or condescended to. She is determined to live her life and disavow those who try to stop her, breaking through the hardships and getting to a place with more hope for the future.
Lelio’s previous film, 2013’s Gloria, also centred on an indomitable woman living her life against the views and expectations of others, although there it was a 58 year-old woman who decides against growing old gracefully. He clearly has an eye for telling stories about people who mainstream society would rather brush aside, and hopefully this is something he will continue to explore in his future work.
With one of the strongest central performances of the year, it is hard to explain the beauty and the emotional drama of A Fantastic Woman; it is something that simply has to be seen. You have to look into Marina’s eyes as you experience her story unfold, and then carry it with you when the film is over.