Sometimes it’s hard to look beyond ourselves. We often get caught up juggling problems of our own, and we can forget to look around. At the same time, we watch movies to escape all that—many films take us to exciting worlds, while some invite us into the lives of others. Both are forms of escapism, but films about people like us don’t entirely distract us from the outside world, but instead ask us to reconsider it. Roger Ebert once famously spoke about this very thing, calling movies “a machine that generates empathy,” and A Fantastic Woman—a Chilean film nominated for the Oscar for Best Foreign Language Film—certainly fits the bill.
Directed by Sebastian Lelio, A Fantastic Woman takes us deep into the life of Marina Vidal (Daniela Vega), a transgender woman doing her best to make it as a singer. She’s also in a loving relationship with an older man named Orlando (Francisco Reyes Morandé), who suddenly suffers an aneurysm one night and dies (it’s not a spoiler, it happens in the first 10 minutes). This death comes as a surprise not only to Marina, but also to Orlando’s family who struggle to accept Marina’s place in his life. This gives way to suspicion and outright hatefulness towards our protagonist simply because of her gender identity. This bigoted suspicion and distrust soon begin to interrupt Marina’s grieving, and we follow her closely through the tumult and melodrama of the days following this unfortunate tragedy.
Almost immediately after Orlando’s death, Marina begins to receive phone calls from members of Orlando’s family including his son from a former marriage and his ex-wife. Marina meets with his family members in order to determine what’s to be done with his possessions and the apartment they shared, and some of these interactions are difficult to watch. In one scene, Marina brings Orlando’s car to his ex-wife, who struggles to keep it together. She seems friendly enough at first, until she verbally attacks Marina and calls her life “a perversion.” She goes on, lamenting the “normal life” she once had with Orlando, all while Marina tries to stand tall, respectfully taking in these insults. Evidently, the family is grieving not only Orlando’s death, but also his decision to be with a trans woman.
On a very basic level, experiencing this kind of hatred and discrimination towards Marina helps us identify with her struggle. She is, as the title suggests, a fantastic woman who’s burdened by the discomfort of others. We see her suffer and cry, but we also see her sing, dance, and laugh. The film’s score reflects this fluctuating mood, often shifting between very ominous jazz pianos to an orchestral score with fluttering strings that seems to suggest some kind of hope. A Fantastic Woman also flirts with the surreal, featuring a few memorable sequences that represent a much-needed break from reality.
Of course, at the center of this movie is Vega’s wonderful performance as Marina. As an actual trans woman, Vega imbues her character with a rich humanity and the emotion of somebody who has probably faced a similar sort of discrimination. The family’s prejudice and hatred is seen outright, but we also witness more subtle forms of intolerance—like when a doctor refuses to call her Marina, opting instead for the name on her government ID.
Some of Vega’s best work is done within scenes where she stars on her own. One that comes to mind is a rather long take of her in the hospital as Orlando is being carted into the ER. Standing alone and resolute, she looks at her dying partner with a love and concern that feels wholly authentic. Scenes like this are essential to selling the connection between Orlando and Marina, since they only really share a few scenes together before the inevitable occurs. Her acting in these moments allows us to fully realize the extent of her pain, which informs much of what happens in the rest of the film.
The film isn’t without problems, though. Some of the movie’s attempts at surrealism feel a bit silly, while other moments feel a little too on the nose or obvious—like when Marina cheers herself up by singing Aretha Franklin’s “(You Make Me Feel Like) A Natural Woman”—but these complaints certainly aren’t detrimental to the film’s success as a delicate character study that exudes and encourages empathy. A Fantastic Woman is an excellent example of film that allows us to look inside ourselves and to those beyond.
Featured Image by Sony Pictures