In the opening scenes of 'A Fantastic Woman', one could be led to believe that the title is a misnomer. We follow a middle-aged man, Orlando (Francisco Reyes), as he goes about his day: first to a sauna, then his office, then searching for something in his car. This mundanity is broken up by the appearance of Marina (Daniela Vega), a young nightclub singer: her confident air and magnetic presence draws his eye, and by extension ours. It is then that we understand who the film is really about, and in just under two hours director Sebastian Lelio takes us on a journey of grief, resilience and love.
Credit - AlloCiné
Through a brisk sequence of vignettes, we see Marina and Orlando celebrating her birthday, then the abrupt shattering of their idyll as Orlando suddenly dies from a brain aneurysm. Immediately Marina is thrown into a sea of doctors, hospitals, police and bitter family members, with little space to process her own grief before she is forced to justify her own existence over and over. The neon hues of the film’s opening are replaced with stark, clinical white light, as if the magic has disappeared from her life upon Orlando’s death. To add insult to injury, as she leaves the hospital, a doctor orders a police car to pick her up, checks her (old) ID card and insists on calling her by her dead name. This serves as a stark reminder of the everyday injustices that transgender people face, institutional as well as societal. We are under no illusions: the world is not a kind place to Marina.
Transphobia under the guise of “doing what’s best” is highlighted well, especially in a subplot with a female police detective who works in crimes involving sexual assault. We are initially led to believe she is sympathetic to Marina, as at first she seems understanding of her situation and does not misgender her. Is it too good to be true? Clearly so, as the detective proceeds to imply that her relationship with Orlando was merely transactional and that Marina was a sex worker defending herself from him. As the omniscient audience we know what really happened (Orlando’s injuries resulted from him falling down a flight of stairs) but are limited to watching events unfold. Although she has done nothing wrong, Marina is treated as a criminal and forced to submit to a medical examination, where her right to bodily autonomy and privacy are violated with impunity. It is clear the hospital staff and police barely see her as human - as if she is a specimen in a lab to be poked and prodded.
Credit - AlloCiné
On top of this comes bullying from Orlando’s family, including his ex-wife and son who openly state their dislike of Marina and refuse to give her the right to grieve for him. They evict her from Orlando’s apartment (that she was moving into), take his car, the dog she shared with him and ban her from attending his wake. The most disturbing scene comes when Orlando’s son and his friends follow her, force her into their car and assault her by wrapping her face in scotch tape. She suffers through all of this with remarkable restraint, never really overtly expressing her anger apart from pointed remarks in response to the ignorance of others. But restraint doesn’t mean passivity: her defiance shows in everything she does, daring to exist in a space that is not welcoming to her. As the camera tracks her purposeful strides, the film’s music (composed by Matthew Herbert) follows her, allowing us a glimpse into the inner workings of her mind as she actively chooses to live - not just survive. The tension finally comes to a head when she goes to the funeral home where his body is held and is confronted by his family who are on their way out. In a cathartic exchange, she climbs on top of their car and shouts that she wants her dog back. This act enables her to regain her sense of agency, and perhaps vent the frustrations of the audience who have been watching her suffer countless instances of transphobic abuse.
Mirrors appear throughout the film as a recurring motif, reminding us that Marina is constantly judged based on her appearance. During the initial hospital scene, the doctors working on Orlando are reflected in the glass window of the door Marina is behind. This shields us from the gory details, allowing us to focus on her expression as she stands locked out of the room unable to do anything to help. It is in another scene involving a mirror that helps spur Marina into action: when she sees workers transporting a mirror across a street, she goes and stands in front of it, her reflection wobbling as the mirror moves. As the audience, we are invited to consider how we perceive her, and how she perceives herself: her identity remains fluid throughout the film.
Credit - AlloCiné
The film is infused with fragments of magic realism, little moments where Marina’s character truly shines through as we view her life through a fantastical lens. In one sequence, soundtracked by her opera singing, she walks down the street, fighting to stay upright against a strong wind. To insist on her right to be who she really is, she resists nature itself, demonstrating the need for wider acceptance and understanding of trans issues in society. Another scene takes place in a gay club: blue, yellow and green lights flash as she briefly imagines Orlando on the dance floor waiting for her and steps in towards him. At this point the film slips into pure fantasy, with a seamless cut to Marina leading a choreographed dance routine complete with matching costumes. Towards the end as she ‘flies’ towards the camera, she looks directly at the audience with a hint of a smile, as if drawing us into the world of her dreams. Tying into the idea of defiance, she proves that life is not just about dealing with what’s thrown at you: life is for living.
The final scene shows Marina preparing for an opera recital, once again surrounded by mirrors. This time, however, it is on her terms: the confidence we saw in the opening scene returns as she sings, recalling her fantasies and the connection her and Orlando had. In this case the connection is now between her and the audience - despite all the hardship she endures as a trans woman, we finally understand what she has gone through, and why she is called 'A Fantastic Woman'.
Edited by Saffron Brown Davis, Film Editor