Winner of this year’s Academy Award for Best Foreign Film, A Fantastic Woman tells the story of one woman’s frustrating fight for recognition and respect in the wake of a sudden death. Leading the way is actor Daniela Vega in a tender performance as a transwoman abandoned, isolated and pushed aside. Marina is a waitress and aspiring singer who shares a life and compassionate relationship with a partner many years her senior. When her companion unexpectedly collapses and dies, Marina is almost instantly ignored by doctors, police officers and her partner’s family. A Fantastic Woman is a sombre and meandering tale of identity and the struggle for a sense of self in the face of loss and the painful logistics that come with a sudden passing. Marina quickly loses any rights she previously had to her life with Orlando – their car, their home and their pet dog quickly up for negotiation as the lawful property of a family who refuse to acknowledge her vital, intimate role in the life of the deceased. Life must go on for Marina, despite the loss of her beloved. Even her right to grieve is meddled with, as she’s banned from attending the funeral or wake. As a transwoman, Marina is not only fighting to be acknowledged as an important part of her partner’s life but to be recognised as a woman at all. Her name frequently mispronounced, pronouns purposeful used incorrectly, and malicious slander repeatedly thrown at her – Marina remains resilient in her struggles to simply be accredited for the value she held in the life of her love.
Director Sebastián Lelio uses Santiago as a powerful backdrop in the same way that Almodóvar often uses Barcelona and Madrid in his family bases dramas such as All About My Mother and Broken Embraces. It’s too easy to compare A Fantastic Woman to the work of the prolific Spanish auteur. There are certainly comparisons to be made but A Fantastic Woman has both a unique subtlety and sorrow which is brought out by Daniela Vega in a triumphant turn which has bursts of energy but also an understated sadness, running deep below the surface. In many regards, A Fantastic Woman is a landmark movie within contemporary trans-cinema but somehow lacks the same exquisite beauty and craftsmanship of other recent winners of the same particular Oscar category, which includes Amour, Son of Saul and Ida. The first Chilean film to ever win the award, it’s certainly a deserving and important winner but I found myself struggling with its oddly paced and unpredictable narrative. We venture down several rabbit holes that don’t always lead anywhere. Where others may enjoy this possibly Lynchian inspired mystery and whimsy, I found myself frustrated by it. It is undoubtedly Vega’s central performance that will leave a lasting impression, even if the film itself may fade over time in my memory. As Marina repeatedly corrects the pronunciation of her name and reaffirms her gender to judgemental strangers around her, one’s respect for her resilience, bravery and authenticity increases ten-fold. My adoration for said protagonist grew with each new courageous refusal to accept society’s painful response and blatant rejection of something they don’t understand and instantly resent.
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