A Fantastic Woman
Even though I knew I was about to watch an Oscar winner, I was not ready for how many feels I got from A Fantastic Woman.
It starts off slow: we meet young waitress-and-aspiring-singer Marina Vidal (Daniela Vega, The Guest) working the night shift in a Santiago club. Her lover Orlando (Francisco Reyes, The Club) comes to meet her. He’s quite a bit older, kind and romantic, and we get a few scenes of tender normalcy before tragedy strikes.
The rest of the movie follows Marina’s efforts to grapple with her sudden loss, figure out what her future holds, face doctors, cops, and eventually confront Orlando’s children and ex-wife. This would be devastating for any woman, especially a young one who is viewed as an interloper or gold digger. Director Sebastián Lelio (Disobedience) allows us to experience the tragedy through Marina’s eyes.
I knew going in that Daniela Vega is trans. But as the scenes passed, I wondered if that factor would even play into the movie. It wasn’t introduced in an overt way. We see a love scene play out between Marina and Orlando just as any movie love scene would play out, with no “reveal” or camerawork intending to objectify her body. That part of her identity only becomes apparent to the viewers when Marina begins to interact with those who are hostile toward her very existence and distrustful of her relationship with Orlando.
She faces distrust, disgust, and roadblocks. She faces morbid curiosity and violation. And finally, outright violence. All for just trying to mourn her dead lover, to find a place to live, to keep her dog. For daring to exist in a world not built for her.
I think the most powerful strength of this movie lies in the simplicity of its storytelling, complemented by the stellar cast. In the shots and the camera movement, I could feel director Lelio’s own empathy and curiosity toward his subjects. In the beautiful score and musical choices, I was pulled just a little bit deeper into their orbit.
Somewhere along the way, Marina herself won my heart with her quiet resolve, her vulnerability, and her commitment to herself and her own moral compass. Before I knew it, the gloves were off. I wanted to rush to her side and protect her from the world.
This isn’t a story about discovering identity like The Danish Girl or Carol, or one woman’s true lived experience like Lady Valor. This is a story of relationships, of grief, of how social networks break down for the most vulnerable. And it happens to be about a trans woman.
I was reflecting recently on how, in older eras of cinema, a primary thrill was to watch actors as chameleons on screen. There were fewer big stars to play the big roles, and those performers would go to great lengths to stretch their voices and appearances to disappear into a totally different person.
In many ways, that’s still something I enjoy watching for in performers. But in today’s cinematic climate, we are finally starting to see value in breaking open the acting pool so that all kinds of people can help tell their own stories. Just as there is abundant truth and power in Octavia Spencer and Jessica Williams telling Black stories, it is deeply profound to see trans stories actually, finally, told by trans actors (see also: Tangerine!).
There’s much to unpack and appreciate in A Fantastic Woman. It certainly warrants multiple viewings just to take it all in! And while there is deep sorrow to be found here, there is also the most inspiring courage.