** ½ (out of 4)
When it comes to misfortune in romance, you can’t get much worse than Marina (Daniela Vega), the trans-female protagonist of Sebastián Lelio’s A Fantastic Woman. At the start of the film, she’s in a relationship with an older man named Orlando (Francisco Reyes), and she appears to have it all: we watch as they celebrate her birthday at a restaurant, talk about vacation plans, and make love in his apartment. Later that same night, however, Orlando wakes up with a pounding headache – and in the span of mere hours, he collapses, tumbles down a flight of stairs, and dies at a nearby hospital. From there, moreover, Marina’s problems only get worse. Thanks to her gender identity, the police become convinced that she had a hand in Orlando’s death, Orlando’s son tries to evict her from Orlando’s apartment – and Orlando’s ex-wife goes so far as to bar her from attending Orlando’s funeral.
The drama that Lelio weaves out of this depressing premise undeniably has plenty to recommend it. Vega, for one, is singularly compelling: she imbues her every gesture and expression with a vitality that other portrayals of trans characters (e.g. Eddie Redmayne in The Danish Girl) have often lacked. Stylistically, meanwhile, Lelio does a good job illustrating both the surreal nature of Marina’s grief and the injustice of the prejudice she faces. With regard to the former, Lelio’s usage of neon lighting, magical-realist sequences featuring a resurrected Orlando, and an airy, flute-based musical motif all speak to Marina’s desperate desire to escape from reality. And with regard to the latter, my favorite moment in the movie comes in a scene where a naked Marina stares into a mirror she’s placed over her groin; the moment perfectly illustrates the idea that instead of obsessing over trans people’s genitalia, cis people should simply respect the identity that trans people have chosen for themselves.
The problems with Fantastic, however, lie in the narrative all this style and acting advance. Lelio’s overarching goal is to make us empathize with Marina as a human being: in contrast to the many characters in the film who can’t get over the fact that she’s trans, he wants us to appreciate her as a person who’s not solely defined by her gender identity. As evidence for this, moreover, you need look no further than the movie’s opening. Instead of directly introducing us to Marina and her trans identity, the film starts by focusing on Orlando: we follow him as he goes about his daily work routine, and when we first meet Marina, Lelio presents her via POV shots that reflect Orlando’s perspective. It’s only when Orlando dies that we realize that Marina is the movie’s actual protagonist; similarly, we officially learn about her gender identity only because a prejudiced cop explicitly references it while interrogating her about Orlando’s passing. With this deceptive beginning, Lelio effectively indicates that Marina’s gender identity shouldn’t matter – and he thereby also highlights just how ordinary her relationship with Orlando was.
Unfortunately, the ironic thing about Fantastic is that it ultimately fails to meet the standard it sets in this elegant introduction: if anything, in fact, it eventually only reinforces its antagonists’ aforementioned fixation on gender identity. Lelio’s portrayal of Marina and Orlando’s relationship, after all, leaves a lot of basic questions unanswered. How did they first meet? Why did they fall for each other? What did they like doing together? As a character, furthermore, Marina doesn’t end up getting much development either. Aside from the fact that she likes singing arias (“Sposa son disprezzata,” “Ombra mai fu”) that conveniently reflect her own internal grief, we learn precious little about her life – her family, her aspirations, her background, and so forth – that would allow us to understand her more fully. If you had to describe Marina after watching this movie, you’d be limited to generalities (“she’s misunderstood,” “she wants love”) that invariably have something to do with her trans identity; the superficiality of Lelio’s characterization of Marina thus belies his professed desire to present a three-dimensional, non-gender-centered depiction of her world.
Here, I don’t wish to suggest that all movies need to spend time developing their characters. Sometimes, in fact, films are better off not filling in the details – as just one recent example, Call Me by Your Name’s mesmerizing portrait of first love would have been far less moving if Luca Guadagnino had wasted energy on character background. What makes Fantastic’s particular lack of development exasperating, however, is the fact that it cuts against the objective it initially establishes for itself: Lelio ensures that the portrait we get of Marina centers on the one thing he supposedly doesn’t want us to pay attention to. Because of this, the movie as a whole not only feels cold – far from viewing Marina as a human being, it treats her as a vehicle for a message about LGBT equality – but you could also even say that it dehumanizes Marina just as much as the bigots it denounces. And in the end, that’s the reason you’ll likely walk away from this experience with an acute feeling of dissatisfaction.
A Fantastic Woman (Una mujer fantástica)
Country: Chile. Dialogue in Spanish.
Starring: Daniela Vega, Francisco Reyes
Running Time: 105 minutes
MPAA Rating: R, “for language, sexual content, nudity and a disturbing assault.”
Produced by: Sebastián Lelio, Gonzalo Maza, Pablo Larraín, Juan de Dios Larraín
Written by: Sebastián Lelio, Gonzalo Maza
Directed by: Sebastián Lelio