Sebastián Lelio directs Daniela Vega, Francisco Reyes and Aline Küppenheim in this drama about a transgender singer who faces scorn and discrimination after the sudden death of her older boyfriend.
A gripping drama of a transitioning woman following the death of her older lover. The bereavement is richly mined, grieving is a time when anyone can be thrown into uncomfortable close proximity with the deceased’s other loved ones and the authorities. A time when you have no choice but to interact with strangers outside your bubble. It can be a period, as presented here, when heartless power struggles over property and funeral arrangements can become cruel, where others feelings can be wantonly dismissed. So putting Daniela Vega‘s stoic and hyperaware Marina into this milieu creates ample opportunity for us to experience a consistent mistrust, belittling and prejudice from people who have made no effort to acknowledge her for who she is. This can range from the hospital staff busily not knowing how to deal with her, to the police’s automatic assumption the lovers’ relationship was less than caring, to the family’s outright hostility toward any interaction with Marina during their grieving process. Sounds like heavy stuff… and it often is. There is one moment of physical intimidation that is particularly psychologically gruelling, to the point where Lelio’s camera pans around to the original instigator, catching the regret and sympathy in his eyes at the torture he has caused. And it can be bludgeoning watching every conversation Marina has be laced with a casual unwillingness to accept her as who she presents herself as, magnified by the loss she is processing alone. While critically acclaimed by the straight / cisgendered press (of which I guess I am) I have read some rejection of the film from the trans community. It has a white male cisgendered director so therefore ‘could never be more than a narrow approximation of a transgendered life’. It uses visual cliches involving mirrors that many find hurtfully unsubtle. It doesn’t specifically represent their experiences, reactions and feelings. To that last criticism, surely no film ever can. We are all unique and there can be no such thing as a DNA exactitude when it comes to representation. The lauded Call Me By Your Name is emotionally true to many gays and straights… even if you have never spent your summers reading the classics with servants. The movie protagonists I personally identify the most with come from another continent, work different jobs, have criminal records and have different relationship status than me. Manchester By the Sea and Good Will Hunting, if you care… the latter directed by an openly gay man. Where A Fantastic Woman succeeds is in making an universally accessible showcase for a restrained yet affecting central turn from Daniela Vega. As we grow to care so much about Marina we can see what needs to change in society and ourselves. It may have been delivered (in part) by someone who is not part of your community but maybe that is why, flawed as it may be for a minority, it can be enjoyed by many others. There are staggering moments of visual lyricism. Some very much on the nose like those mirrors… an uphill struggle against a wind machine, for example. Others pure jubilant fantasy… a dance sequence where Marina takes flight right into our faces. The farcical shock of Almodovar punctures the final act. The luxurious day to day lifestyle of the soon to be passed Orlando has the refined decadence of a Felini or a Paolo Sorrentino sequence. There is a low key heist setpiece near the end where Marina has to traverse a set of gendered locker room that reminded me of Victoria. And the finale, when grief and others’ undermining Marina are left behind and she gets to be on stage, singing opera, defined by her talents and passion, not her gender, is stunning piece of cinematic punctuation. The proof in the pudding as to whether A Fantastic Woman has worked beyond its own artistic targets will be whether cinema finds a long term home for the superlative Daniela Vega. Three decades ago, Hollywood struggled to know what to do with Jaye Davidson after The Crying Game. Let’s not make the same mistake twice.