The Chilean drama A Fantastic Woman recently won Best Foreign Language Film at the Academy Awards. It is a picture that effectively details the prejudices displayed against a transgender woman and her continuing attempts to be treated with dignity by those around her. While not every element works and the film lacks a big emotional resolution, it is an interesting and thought-provoking effort.
Marina (Daniela Vega) is a waitress/nightclub singer living with the much older Orlando (Francisco Reyes), a successful business owner in Santiago. When he suffers a heart attack in bed during the night, Marina rushes to get him treatment. Unfortunately, they don’t make it to the hospital in time and the stroke is fatal, leaving the heartbroken woman alone. Before she can even grieve, she is forced to deal with Orlando’s ex-wife (Aline Kuppenheim) and the police, who are all suspicious of Marina. The lead finds her loving relationship under sudden scrutiny.
The movie is most effective and engaging when dealing with Marina’s interactions with family members. There are immediate assumptions made about the nature of the relationship and suggestions that Marina caused the death in order to claim her partner’s fortune. While Orlando’s brother Gabo (Luis Gnecco) is sympathetic and all around state that they are understanding of the protagonist’s plight, the actions suggest something different. She gets lip service as the family continually undercut her efforts to pay her respects, eventually trying to bar her from attending the funeral. It’s subtle, but the character is constantly demeaned with pointed comments at almost every turn.
As events progress, the ex-wife and certain family members take on an even more disturbing and threatening manner, as do the multiple and increasingly debasing police inquiries. It’s fascinating to see the acquaintances judge Marina and the motives for her relationship without any knowledge of it, or prior interest in getting to know or seeing the couple when they were happy and together. The movie is most effective at showing that love comes in all forms and depicting the malicious thoughts of those attacking them. Some interest is also developed through the appearance of a mysterious key in Orlando’s possession at the time of death. Marina somehow holds on to hope that it may lead to information or even a memento for her to remember her partner.
There are also dream sequences added in an attempt to get inside the head of the lead character. This includes a dance number and, as tensions rise, Marina attempting to walk down a street against powerful winds that continue to push her backwards on her way to a destination. While it is impressively mounted, these bits feel on-the-nose in terms of depicting the lead’s struggles against prejudice. And the climax, which gives Marina some closure on the events, doesn’t leave as big of an emotional mark as one might have hoped for.
Still, it’s a very good movie, with a compelling and sympathetic lead performance that helps emphasize the intolerance and discrimination that continues, overtly and in subtle ways, to affect those within the transgender community. For that reason alone, A Fantastic Woman is certainly worth a look.