Some movies make you want to crawl inside and live in them, Videodrome style. Sometimes it’s for obvious reasons, like when it comes to the color coordinated wonders of a Wes Anderson film, but occasionally the reasons are more obtuse. A Fantastic Woman is a captivating, sad film, but it contains slices of magic so sublime, you can’t bare to turn away. The movie is stacked with thoroughly dehumanizing moments, including an assault and some scenes so uncomfortable the tension seems to ooze right off the screen. But the intimacy created between actress Daniela Vega and the audience, plus the dashes of surrealism that pepper the film, make it the kind of movie you never want to end.
Vega is in every scene, stealing all of them, plays a trans woman named Marina. She’s a server by day and a singer by night, with a boyfriend who could easily be her father. The night of her birthday, after a romantic dinner and some dancing, her partner Orlando wakes up frantic. He’s unable to explain what’s happening to him and quickly faints. In a panic, Marina rushes him to the hospital where he soon dies of an aneurysm. While Marina deals with her own grief, she finds herself at the mercy of Orlando’s family, including his ex-wife and their adult children, most of whom despise Marina for breaking up their “normal” family.
Along the way, Marina is also harassed by Orlando’s doctors, is treated incredibly cruelly detective who specialize in sex crimes (and claims to be there to help Marina), and is even barred from Orlando’s funeral. Throughout the film, Marina is used as a punching bag for other people’s grief, whether they’re feeling wild and reckless (like Orlando’s son), or calm and calculated (his ex-wife). And while that makes it seem like Marina is meek and mild, she is a force to be reckoned with. If anything, A Fantastic Woman is a testament to her resilience. Time and time again she is pushed to the edge, and not only does she survive, but she finds ways to preserve herself.
Although, fighting through the grief and injustice isn’t easy. Marina is hounded by questions throughout the film, some of them have to do with her late boyfriend, but most of them are focused around herself. She is constantly being boxed in by mirrors, whether she is trapped in a bathroom with no one but her reflection to keep her company, or is passed by movers carrying a warped mirror on it’s side. No matter what she can’t get away from herself. Director Sebastián Lelio is uses the films cinematography to isolate Marina. It doesn’t matter if she’s dancing in the middle of a packed nightclub or walking down a busy street, this is a journey she’s taking alone.
And yet, she does manage to find comfort. Marina has friends who step in and help her out, she shares a tender moment with her singing coach, and once in a blue moon she gets a vision of Orlando. Often accompanied by a red light, his specter disturbs Marina, but there’s a comforting (and magical) aspect to his visits as well. These are some of the only scenes we get of Marina’s unadulterated grief, since she spends so much of the movie being hounded people’s problems.
One of the most striking scenes of the movie (and the trailer) features Marina walking down the streets of Santiago. A brisk wind picks up, and she is almost horizontal as she tries to fight against the breeze. It’s a fantastic visual summary of the movie. Despite her hardships and the multiple people who attempt to bring her down along the way, Marina’s a survivor. When she has to, she pushes back.