A searing portrait of a woman’s constantly interrupted grief, Sebastián Lelio’s A Fantastic Woman is a defiantly bold picture of love, loss and family.
In Chile’s capital, Santiago, aspiring trans singer Marina (Daniela Vega) is in a loving relationship with the older Orlando (Francisco Reyes), a cis gentle divorcee. Following a romantic meal celebrating Marina’s birthday, Orlando awakes in the middle of the night feeling alarmingly unwell. As Marina searches for the car keys to rush him to hospital, Orlando, in a state of confusion, trips down the stairs and injures himself. While he dies at the hospital, the injuries sustained in the fall mean the police become involved. From this moment on, the comfort of protective tenderness established as the film begins is savagely destroyed by the intrusion of every shade of bigotry imaginable.
The police insist on calling Marina by her former male name, asking if Marina “is a nickname?”. Orlando’s ex-wife Sonia (Aline Küppenheim) openly tells Marina “I don’t know what I’m seeing” when she looks at her. Orlando’s adult son Bruno (Nicolás Saavedra), whose bigotry is laced with sexual undercurrents, asks Marina “did you get the operation?”. Marina’s face is momentarily disfigured when attackers wrap sellotape around it. Adriana (Amparo Noguera), head of the Sexual Offences Unit, undermines her self-professed sympathy for trans women when she forces Marina to undergo an invasive physical examination.
Throughout the film, doors open, close and lock. A door slides shut in the hospital on Orlando’s dying body, it slides shut in the car park of Orlando’s apartment block, it slides shut on Orlando’s body as he is cremated. It is not so much what is behind the doors that matters, but that the constant opening and closing mimic the barriers to grief. Marina is perpetually being shut out, both of physical spaces and of the shared process of grieving. However, the final and most significant door is opened by Marina herself, and is left open. Without any spoilers, it is a wonderfully poignant moment where she is finally able to begin her grieving.
Parallels with Pablo Larraín’s Jackie (2016) should be no suprise, given his role as producer on A Fantastic Woman. Both films follow a lone woman who witness the sudden and violent death of a partner, set largely in the days between death and funeral. Jackie and Marina are denied the space, privacy, and time to process their own grief, instead having to constantly fight against those whose arrogance denies their right to mourn.
If those on screen are cruel to Marina, then those off screen are kind. Benjamín Echazarreta’s cinematography is striking, and is matched by Lelio and Gonzalo Maza’s thoughtful screenplay. Dipping its toe into the pool of magical realism, the film boasts a spectacular sequence that sees Marina don a sparkling jacket and perform a choreographed dance, complete with backing dancers, breaking from the film’s wider realism. While at points the plot is bleak, the colour palette of the film is always vivid. Whether it is the flash of a neon sign, a car indicator, or the steam of a sauna, the constantly shifting lights illuminate the characters with every colour of the rainbow. And, without wanting to reward a film for doing the bare minimum, it is refreshing to see a trans actor playing a trans role.
Image: Courtesy of Glasgow Film Festival