When it comes to representation, mainstream cinema follows a fairly predictable script: start with abysmal caricature, overcompensate with condescending, surface-level melodrama, and—slowly, rarely—build up to nuance. Perhaps nowhere has this change been more glacier than in the depiction of trans characters. If the blatant transphobia of nineties- and aughts- comedies was like Amos n’ Andy, this decade’s prestige films have been closer to Guess Who’s Coming To Dinner: benevolent depictions so sparkly they feel fetishizing, losing sight of the real experiences of real people. Eddie Redmayne in a dress isn’t just problematic casting (though it is that, too); it’s weak storytelling. A compelling story reveals something new about its characters, and you can’t reveal what you have no authority to know. Bullet-point virtues and timidly telegraphed “bravery” may impart temporary weight, but they’re taken off as easily as Jared Leto’s wig.
If 2015’s Tangerine was a vivid exception to the rule, its guerrilla style and naturalistic ethos hardly squared with mainstream sensibilities. What makes A Fantastic Woman (4.5/5) truly stunning is its ability to be authentic, challenging, and accessible in the same breath.
Chile’s official selection for the Foreign Language Oscar, Una mujer fantástica tells the story of Marina, a 30-ish-year-old trans woman living in Santiago. By day, she waits tables. By night, she sings—or, more accurately, she captivates. Whether steamy bossanova in a flickering club or soaring opera on a concert hall stage, she has the audience wrapped around her finger. Tonight is her birthday and Orlando is among the captives, waiting for the final number to end so they can hail a cab, catch a dinner reservation, and share a romantic evening in their high rise apartment. A recent divorcée some 30 years her senior, Orlando sees in Marina an energy he hadn’t known before. They trade gifts. They make love. They talk with the shimmering ease of long term stability. The night goes off without a hitch…until he dies.
Unexpected tragedy may seem like a melodramatic conceit, but the story it builds to is all too real. This is a film about grief and the sudden loss of normalcy; a zooming out from Marina’s tiny sanctum of love to a world that holds her at cruel arm’s length. In the aftermath of her partner’s death, she is confronted by all manner of prejudice—be it the toxic abuse of Orlando’s monstrous son, the pursed lip moralizing of his wounded ex-wife, the infantilizing mistrust of a local detective, or (perhaps worst of all) the spineless “sympathy” of a conflict-averse brother, who wishes she could come to the funeral (really he does!) but now isn’t the time to “intrude” on “family matters”. If each serves as a fairly obvious social stand-in, our protagonist is nothing if not complex. I generally avoid this word in describing a performance, but Daniela Vega’s turn as Marina is utterly fearless—simultaneously vulnerable and first-pumpingly defiant, she insists upon a reckoning no eggshell-dancing cis actor could approach.
I love this movie for the same reason I loved Casey Plett’s “A Safe Girl To Love”—it has lived-in veracity and the courage of its convictions. Sebastián Lelio’s film doesn’t delicately brush against trans issues; it collides with them at full, romantic force. I’m not sure I’ve ever seen a work of art so baldly provocative on the subject, so willing to confront the audience not just with the abstract notion of dysphoria, but with its painful specificity—emotional and physical. The way a cold, clinical gaze can humiliate and diminish; the courage of authenticity against those who would negate it; the quiet relief of truly being seen. Despite heavy themes, though, A Fantastic Woman never tips into dourness. Like Marina, the film is attentive to ugliness and beauty in equal measure, with stylistic flourishes and escapist fantasies sprinkled generously throughout. This balancing act is best captured in its two final scenes: one in a sauna, the other an opera hall. In the first, Daniela/Marina prods at preconceived notions of identity and “passing” in a way that I found absolutely mesmerizing; provoking feelings that I’m still wrestling with as I write. We then cut to her on stage, belting out a glorious aria; staring directly into the camera as if to say “I’m real, I’m surviving, and I don’t give a damn what you wrestle with.”
I’ll be pulling hard for this at the Academy Awards. I hope, regardless, it gets the attention it deserves. Chris and I had a good chat about the film in Episode 488: