Image and perception play huge roles in the Oscar-nominated A Fantastic Woman, by Chilean filmmaker Sebastián Lelio. The film’s protagonist, Marina (Daniela Vega), struggles to move forward after the sudden death of her much-older lover, Orlando (Francisco Reyes). This difficult process is made even more so because Marina, a transgender woman, must battle a society that views her with contempt and distrust.
Marina’s problems begin when she rushes Orlando to the emergency room in a vain attempt to save him. Hospital officials insist on addressing her as Daniel, the name on her government-issued ID. They become instantly suspicious of bruises on Orlando’s body and a wound to his head, sustained when he fell down a flight of stairs. Marina finds herself dealing with a persistent police officer (Amparo Noguera), who subjects her to a demeaning physical exam.
She also receives cruel treatment from Orlando’s family. His ex-wife Sonia (Aline Kuppenheim) calls Marina a “chimera” and forbids her to attend Orlando’s wake or funeral. Orlando’s son Bruno (Nicolás Saavedra) kicks Marina out of the apartment she shared with Orlando and even takes their dog. Bruno also tries to bully and intimidate Marina.
Handled incorrectly, this could have devolved quickly into melodrama. Ms. Vega’s performance, which is assured and completely free of caricature, prevents this from happening. Marina’s steely dignity and refusal to accept substandard treatment are two reasons that this film is aptly named.
Lelio and cinematographer Benjamín Echazarreta make frequent use of mirrors to convey the themes of image and perception. Marina sees herself in a bathroom mirror. Her image reflects in a mirror being carried across the street by a group of workmen. Most controversially, Marina holds a mirror between her legs, but turned so that the viewer only sees her face.
At several points, Lelio and Echazarreta have Vega gaze directly into the camera. The world may watch Marina, but she looks right back at it, always with self-awareness.
Lelio said that he wanted to make a “trans-genre” film, and he has certainly done this. He met Vega, a transgender performer, while creating this project and reshaped it for her. A Fantastic Woman has elements of thriller/noir in the scenes of Orlando’s death and Marina’s struggles with the police. There are moments of ghostly romantic fantasy when Marina seems to contact Orlando.
In addition, there is a freewheeling side to the film that reminds me of late Almodovar. This can best be seen in the musical choices, which work because they are used with such full-out abandon. Aretha Franklin’s version of “You Make Me Feel Like A Natural Woman” is used in one scene; thanks to Vega, it is the right choice for the scene.
Vega, an opera singer, also sings two arias in the film. A Fantastic Woman ends with her performing Handel’s “Ombra Mai Fu”. The final lyrics are cannily applicable to Marina herself:
May thunder, lightning, and storms never bother your dear peace,
Nor may you by blowing winds be profaned.
Theme: Gender Identification
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