Directed by Sebastián Lelio (2017)
by Benjamin Leonard, Best Boy
Chilean director Sebastian Lelio had two features screening at the 2017 Toronto International Film Festival, both dealing with women in relationships not accepted by their families and the communities around them. I saw Disobedience there and, while I liked the story, didn’t care for many of the directorial choices. It didn’t make sense why some actions were taking place where they did and the hotel sex scene seemed to be leering heavily. Conversely, I loved the direction of A Fantastic Woman.
This review is spoilery within the world of the movie but does not go beyond anything that hasn’t been given away in most of the press or promotional releases that have already come out. In this film, it is the way the story plays out that is most important, not the individual plot points.
The film opens with an idyllic shot of Iguazu Falls at the border of Argentina, Paraguay, and Brazil. Later, we see Marina (played by Daniela Vega) singing in a Santiago nightclub and then celebrating her birthday with her much older boyfriend Orlando (played by Francisco Reyes). Orlando has planned a trip for them to Iguazu Falls but misplaced the tickets. They poke fun at his age and you can see the love in their playfulness. Back home, they make love and fall asleep. Orlando, feeling ill, wakes a few hours later and they rush to the hospital where he dies.
While there were indications earlier, this is where we learn that Marina is transsexual. The doctors and police refuse to use her feminine name or pronouns. But that isn’t all. They are highly suspect of Marina and Orlando’s relationship. They assume that Marnia is a prostitute or there was abuse in their relationship.
Meanwhile, Marina needs to help resolve Orlando’s estate. She has his (their) car and is living in his (their) apartment with his (their) dog. Everyone in Orlando’s family despises her except for his brother Gabo, who seems to have more compassion than ability to help resolve Marina’s issues with the rest of the family.
The family wants Marina out of the apartment and pretty much all traces of her existence cleansed from their lives. They don’t meet with her in public. They communicate only by phone or letting themselves into the apartment while she sleeps or is away. They won’t even tell her when and where the funeral services are being held.
From here, there are innumerable times in which the family, hospital, and police degrade and dehumanize Marina. The result is sickening and sad. The inhumanity of it all is vast and guttural, but Marina maintains her claim to human dignity throughout. She loudly and clearly asserts herself, insisting to be seen and heard. It is the love that she shared with Orlando that gives her this strength as represented by a spectral image of Orlando that appears a few times throughout the film to drive Marina forward.
This was one of the main directorial decisions that I appreciated. The other was the use of reflections and how one sees themselves as compared to how others see them. We are repeatedly shown Marina’s face (and occasionally body) from multiple angles at one time. Sometimes she is viewing herself in mirrors, sometimes as others would see her as reflected in a shop window and even as seen while being photographed. All of these versions differ depending on the situation and the viewer: feminine/masculine, empowered/diminished, sexy/plain, sad/joyous. Marina is a multifaceted human being and not just a gender, social status, physical appearance, mental state.
This is most clearly represented in a powerful scene towards the end of the film where she lays naked with a mirror over her crotch and is viewing her face looking back at herself. She is not whoever Orlando’s family, society or you the viewer has decided she is just because she may or may not have a penis. She is a strong and beautiful woman that deserves the respect afforded any human being.
A Fantastic Woman is a terrific film and I highly recommend seeing it, but I must offer up the warning that there are many scenes that can be exceptionally difficult and upsetting to watch. It pays off in the end, but it is a hard a grueling road getting there.