Out on UK screens this Friday (2nd of March) is Oscar nominated Chilean drama A Fantastic Woman. Here is my review, which be warned does include a few minor spoilers, so if you want to see it cold please read this post viewing.
The plot of A Fantastic Woman is simple. Marina Vidal (Danelia Vega) is a young trans woman in a relationship with an older man Orlando (Francisco Reyes). Early in the film, Orlando suffers a heart attack and passes away that night in hospital. The sudden death of a lover is always a traumatic experience, but for Marina the ordeal of grief is exacerbated by an escalating series of humiliations inflicted by people who initially present as concerned and understanding liberals, but gradually become more and more incensed as this trans woman expects the same rights as a cisgender partner.
One on threatening plot strand, Marina is dogged by the attention of police officer Adriana (Amparo Noguera). On the night of his heart attack, Orlando fell down a flight of stairs. Initially the officer seems concerned that an injury sustained in the fall is a sign of a sexually abusive relationship. Despite her protestations that this was not the case, the policewoman uses the cover of concern to force Marina into one of the most difficult to watch scenes of the year, a humiliating medical examination at the hands of a male doctor.
Director Sebastián Lelio’s film is not shy in making a comment here about the hostility with which trans women have been treated by some sections of liberal feminism. In her power trip Adriana seems to be enjoying the discomfort of both Marina and the straight male physician examining her. It is a powerful and disturbing sequence despite (or perhaps because) it is directed with taste and discretion by Lelio. An awareness of the history of Chile under the oppression of the Pinochet era adds a horrifying extra frisson to the scene.
This brief synopsis makes the film sound gruelling, and it occasionally is. However, this is a film that balances emotionally harrowing content, with a fascinating and beguiling central character. Marina is someone you want to spend time with and get to know, rather than an exotic creation who is fun to observe from a safe vantage point.
The sensitive script by Lelio and Gonzalo Maza gives Marina’s plight universal resonance. The theme of cohabitee rights, especially after the death of a partner, will resonate not only with a LGBTQ audience, but also with straight unmarried couples. The abuse of power by a person in authority is something many will have experienced. At the same time, aspects specific to trans audiences are not ignored (but I will leave greater discussion to trans film writers and critics who know far more than I).
Vega’s performance is extraordinary, and fundamental to the success of the movie. The actress gives the character humanity and warmth making her unique personal situation relatable.
This is where A Fantastic Woman feels truly groundbreaking. Trans characters in film have often been clearly positioned as ‘other’. The horror genre has an ignoble tradition of presenting trans people as psychopathic from Psycho to The Silence of the Lambs. Even sympathetic portrayals of trans characters from The Rocky Horror Picture Show to Tangerine have featured characters who reject or oppose the social mainstream. A Fantastic Woman in contrast is about a character who simply wishes to be given the same respect and rights as anyone.
Lelio is not the first filmmaker to cast a trans actor. Trans actors were leads in Sean Baker’s wonderful Tangerine and central to the Wachowski sisters tv series Sense8. Dario Argento even cast a trans actor in a cis gendered part in Tenebrae (a very small part). But Vega’s performance in this role is so good, and feels so natural that it should forever end the practice of casting cisgender actors in transgender roles in films like Dallas Buyers Club. As talented as an actor like Jared Leto is, he adds an additional layer of performance when playing a trans character that plays straight into the hands of the people arguing that transgender men and women are somehow false, somehow artificial. This extra level of artifice is completely absent in Vega’s performance. Without it, we have simply great acting. It felt genuinely revelatory to me, and is the equal of every performance nominated in this awards season. Vega is really that good and I cannot wait to see whatever she chooses to do next.
While this is clearly an art-house film, it is a mainstream art-house film, and has a real opportunity to change attitudes. Lelio films with energy and leavens the essential grimness of the material with sparing use of magical realist moments (this includes a dance sequence as joyous that the one in The Shape of Water). This is a film that has mass audience appeal like Call Me By Your Name and Pedro Almodovar’s more mainstream work.