A Fantastic Woman

Review by Rebecca Wynne-Walsh

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The reputation of A Fantastic Woman precedes it. Helmed by the increasingly acclaimed director Sebastían Lelio and nominated for Best Foreign Language Film at the 90th Academy Awards it is certainly not a picture accompanied by low expectations. The apparently straight forward markers of quality are directly contrasted with the complexity of virtually every other aspect of the film. Lelio has described this as his endeavour to defy genre and present a “multi-experiential and multi-emotional” film that pushes the boundaries of empathy and identification beyond genre and, as we come to understand throughout the film, beyond gender.

A Fantastic Woman first introduces the viewer to the stable, enviably content relationship between Marina (Daniela Vega) and Orlando (Francisco Reyes) as they celebrate the former’s birthday. Their relationship, while blissfully normal in action crosses a couple of socio-normative boundaries to say the least. The most visually obvious is the fact that Orlando is 30 years Marina’s senior, there is also a disregard for class boundaries with Orlando as the owner of a successful company and Marina as a part-time waitress and struggling singer. Finally, it soon becomes apparent that their relationship also crosses binary gender boundaries as we learn of Marina’s transgender identity. The nature of this revelation is heartbreaking.

The opening sequence of the film spirals hopelessly from domestic bliss to hell on earth. After a romantic evening Orlando falls seriously ill and passes away moments after Marina has rushed him to the hospital. Here, unfortunately, the complications arise and as is often the case in the face of tragedy, Marina’s “fantastic” nature is both tested and strengthened.

Marina is faced with unmotivated suspicion, emotional blackmail and terrifying physical abuse as Orlando’s estranged family members attempt to evict her from Orlando’s funeral, home and indeed life. The ensuing clash between the family and Marina presents some scenes that are difficult to watch to say the least, Marina, guided by Vega’s subtle but unflinching performance, remains strong despite these extreme acts of prejudice, all while trying to process her immense grief.

The scenes that explore Marina’s psychological and emotional tangents are the most interesting in the film. One only wishes the surrealist impulse behind these creatively insightful asides had been further privileged as they open an exciting window into the complex emotions Marina is dealing with.

These colourful and expressive scenes are juxtaposed with extremely slow paced moments of contemplation, which it must be said, are at times overdone. The tonal shifts between the two strands of the film upsets the unity of the portrait that is being painted. Although this multiplicity may have indeed been the point, it bears noting that it could have been realised with more finesse.

Lelio presents his audience with less answers than questions but has noted himself that the concept of narrative in this film is purely functional as “a sort of trojan horse loaded with humanity”. Lelio’s goal is not cognitive but emotive. He vocally recognises the power of cinema as it “invites us to feel like others”. With this as his goal he most certainly succeeds, having created a film brimming with sensuality, emotionality and reflexivity. Though there are moments when this goal could have been achieved a little less heavy handedly and with a smoother style, there is no doubt that A Fantastic Woman is indeed a fantastic film.