A Fantastic Woman (2017)
Written by Sebastián Lelio & Gonzalo Maza
Directed by Sebastián Lelio
Grief is universal, an emotion while experienced as a result of certain life events; it has a profound resonance in our lives. You never feel grief is moderation; it cascades over you like waves leading you to feel as though grief may take you under. Being trans is not an experience we will all have; in fact, it’s estimated about 0.6% of the population is transgender. Trans people feel grief just like anyone else; they love and feel loss no different than any human being. A Fantastic Woman puts its protagonist in a universally-experienced situation, never ignoring what role her gender plays in the story, as a means to connect her to the very people in the film that seeks to undermine her grieving process.
Marina is a transwoman living in Santiago, Chile, who works as a waitress and sings on the side. She’s in a relationship with Orlando, an older man who dreams of spending his later years with her. One night, Orlando wakes up feeling strange and ends up falling down the stairs when he struggles to get up. Marina rushes him to the emergency room, but he passes from a brain aneurysm. Marina calls Orlando’s brother and leaves the hospital suddenly worried about coming face to face with Orlando’s disapproving family. She finds that his son and second wife are unwilling to deal with the aftermath with understanding and patience. Marina struggles to carve out space for her to mourn Orlando and make herself acknowledged as one of his loved ones.
The minute Marina speaks to the police at the hospital, and they drop the pronoun “he” when talking about her, you can read the look on her face. She’s not shocked or tormented; there’s a sadness that flashes across her face. Marina is no stranger to being misgendered and responds to the blatant disrespect with compliance. She understands that she is in a position where being militant will get her harmed or killed. Throughout the film, Marina finds strength in herself that she didn’t know she had within her.
What I loved most about Marina was how quiet the role is and how the movie puts us in her head. Marina is not a loud person; she’s just a person, working a job to pay her bills and in love with someone who appreciates her without judgment. I wondered how much the film would acknowledge her transgender status and it’s clear from the first act that she’s going to struggle to have her right to grieve recognized by Orlando’s family. When they berate her or toss off insults saying she is “a perversion” or deadnaming her, you can read her face and body language and the pain they register. These verbal slights are like striking her across the face.
Marina does have a moment of standing up to the family, but it’s not grandiose, just a drawing a line in the sand from where she will not budge. Marina’s major victories take place in her mind. She sees Orlando everywhere she goes and ultimately has a moment where they can say goodbye correctly. After being attacked by Orlando’s son and his friends she wanders into a gay nightclub where she dances, a distant look in her eyes. The audience sees that in her mind, she is dressed in shimmering clothes with the entire club acting as her back up dancers. These quiet triumphs are profoundly relatable and are experiences we have in our minds all the time.
A Fantastic Woman has a dreamy quality, its music a lilting sound that carries us into the dreams of Marina. There isn’t an explosive ending where all the bad people are defeated and good wins. Instead, Marina is satisfied with her victory, demanding a part of her life with Orlando and receiving that very thing. She is being forced to start over, but we last see her on stage, singing opera as a mezzo-soprano giving the slightest of smiles, letting the audience know she is going to keep living.