The Chilean film “A Fantastic Woman” hit theaters on February 2nd to receive critical acclaim, not just for it’s hypnotic cinematography, but also the brave and sensual portrayal of the life of a transgender woman interwoven with themes of identity and vulnerability. Directed by Sebastián Lelio, the story centers around Marina (Daniela Vega), a waitress and aspiring singer, whose life and identity are fiercely challenged when her significant other Orlando (Francisco Reyes) dies. The writing and portrayal of the characters is masterful, intricately weaving in and out of an innocent and perverse portrayal of love. Leilo creates an atmosphere painted with purples and reds of two people completely infatuated with each other, not unlike two teenagers drunk with new love, but suddenly pulls out the rug from beneath the audience when Orlando suddenly falls ill and dies in the hospital.
Leilo explores themes of gender identity throughout the movie, beginning with the challenge of Marina’s sexuality in the hospital after the news of the death. With subtle disbelief by the doctor and police officer, they insist on seeing her ID with her old name Daniel on it, and make a point to tell her that is her legal name, the one she should use. Steadily, these themes grow stronger and the dialogue grows sharper as Marina’s identity is politely questioned at first, then greatly scorned later. Leilo uses crude suspicion born of prejudices that grow around the death of Orlando through not only investigating officers, but also through Orlando’s family, twisting and distorting the love presented in the beginning of the movie. Furthermore, Daniela Vega, a trans woman herself in real life, portrays Marina as a gentle soul, quietly mourning the death of her lover, which Lelio uses to augment the growing vicious accusations from outside sources.
Halfway through, the movie suddenly swells with Orlando’s family treating Marina as less than human, a perversion that has no rights to mourn. At one sharp point, Leilo has Orlando’s ex-wife Sonia (Aline Küppenheim) forbid Marina from attending the wake and says “When I look at you, I don’t know what I’m seeing. A chimera, that’s what I’m seeing.” Using the context of simple misunderstandings, the idea of what a trans person may endure every day is brought into the dialogue. Daniela Vega manages the barrage of insults in a reserved fashion as Marina, as if she has been treated this way her entire life, and expects others to view her as an aberration. She even goes so far as to say “I can be discreet” should she attend the wake as to not frighten Sonia’s 8 year old daughter. The discourse between the two makes a huge comment on the culture surrounding trans individuals and the unfair way in which they are regarded bringing the movie back from its mesmerizing drama into a sharp relief of what is acutely true about the mistreatment of trans individuals.
The idea of identity and vulnerability are two heavy themes in the movie, which Lelio masterfully highlights by juxtaposing subtlety with blatancy, innocence and perversion. Despite the purposeful disrespect she receives at every twist and turn, Daniela Vega has Marina maintain grace throughout the process, proving incredibly that she is a woman who deserves to be treated as such. “A Fantastic Woman” is not only about the quest of one woman to assert her identity and demands to be treated as a human being, but it also questions what makes a woman. Leilo wraps the movie up with a poignant question by depicting Marina laying on her bed, naked, staring down between her legs where a mirror is propped up. All she can see is her pretty face reflected back, so who cares what lies behind that mirror? That is not what makes a fantastic woman.
Illustration by Julia Feingold