This is a cross-post with Third Coast Review.
It’s often said that film is the most collaborative of arts. It takes a village, so to speak, to create ninety minutes of story and visuals that move us, inspire us, scare us, entertain us. When everything comes together seamlessly, no one aspect of the film overshadows any other.
There are those cases, of course, where a certain element of the production trumps all others. Sometimes it’s the score that soars over every scene, or the cinematography that breathtakingly captures a world on screen.
In the case of A Fantastic Woman, an Oscar nominee for Best Foreign Language Film from Chile, it’s one performance that sends an already wonderful film into greatness. Daniela Vega is Marina Vidal, a trans woman scraping by with a waitressing job and dreams of being a singer. When her older boyfriend, Orlando, dies suddenly after celebrating her birthday, she faces her own grief and the prejudices of a family who want nothing to do with her.
Directed by Sebastián Lelio (who co-wrote the script with Gonzalo Maza), A Fantastic Woman is as whimsical as it is tragic, as fierce as it is heartbreaking. And it’s all thanks to Vega’s transcendent performance. Early in the film, Marina, who recently moved in with Orlando, rushes him to the hospital with shortness of breath; when he doesn’t survive the aneurysm, her world is turned upside down in an instant. Her first call is to Gabo, Orlando’s brother; Gabo tactfully requests that she let him call the rest of the family to share the news.
It’s the first sign that Marina won’t have the basic dignity of grieving the loss of her partner without a fight; already, she’s to be hidden away and left unacknowledged. But there are logistics to work out, like what to do with the condo and car; when and where to hold memorial services; and because Orlando arrived to the hospital with bruises and a gash on his head (from an innocent fall down the stairs), a detective to answer to.
Vega’s undeniable on-screen energy (she has it, whatever it is that makes movie stars) takes the audience through every new trial and injustice as if we’re right there next to her. From being called away from a busy shift to answer the detective’s questions to waking up at her home (her home!) to Orlando’s grown son already there, insisting she move out immediately (“If you steal anything, we’ll know,” he threatens.), Vega wears every emotion on her sleeve. There’s a vulnerability, a willingness to let us in on her every emotion, and it is captivating, maybe even a little dangerous.
At a certain point, Marina has had enough, and in one hell of a scene we know it immediately: it’s on. She’s mad as hell, and she’s not gonna take it anymore. Despite the degradations (a horribly invasive physical exam at the precinct) and injustices (being thrown out of the memorial service), Marina is determined to grieve and honor the man she loved in the only way she knows how: as herself.
And this is what makes A Fantastic Woman, led by Vega’s knock-out performance, such an achievement: the universal truth of it. More than once, Lelio slyly works in visual cues about representation—of diversity, sure, but more significantly about our genuine selves. About how we want to be seen—all the effort we put in to present the truth of ourselves to the world—and how it sees us in return. When the two don’t align, prejudice and discrimination weasel their way in all too easily. Marina is confronted every moment of every day by the narrow minds of that in-between, those like Orlando’s ex-wife who are unwilling to see Marina as she is.
To our great joy, Marina refuses to let these narrow perceptions define her. Even though it scares her, even though she’s not sure she’s strong enough, she nevertheless puts one foot in front of the other to fight for her right to live the truest life she can: her own.