A Fantastic Woman review: A story of incredible fortitude in an unequal fight against transphobia

  • A Fantastic Woman

Sebastián Lelio presents us with a harrowing story of a transgender woman in a solitary fight against the prejudice and hostility after the death of her partner with an extraordinary performance from Daniela Vega.

a fantastic woman review

The subtle snapshots from the life of Marina and Orlando tell us one thing: they’re incredibly happy together. She’s just moved into his flat, they’re planning a trip of their lifetime to the Iguazu Falls, and when he looks at her in the opening scene, he gets all starry-eyed when she smiles at him from the stage. However, their story doesn’t have a happy ending: one night, Orlando suffers a stroke. Despite the dramatic attempts at helping him, Marina can’t prevent his death. When the policeman at the hospital asks for her ID card, we understand that she’s undergone a sex reassignment therapy. The officer’s appalling reaction is just the introduction to the abysmal stream of hate unleashed at the woman, from her partner’s family, doctors and law enforcement alike.

Could you imagine yourself losing the right to bereavement when somebody close to you dies? Not many of us will ever have to experience that, and the unthinkable struggle of Marina’s fight, executed intensely by a trans actress Daniela Vega, fills us with a range of feelings we absorb from the silver screen. She’s not able to pay homage to her loved one, and she’s refused the right to get through the grief without dealing with additional cruelty from those who’d do absolutely everything to degrade her.

Everyone casts our heroine away; the list of prejudgments from the people who surround her is bottomless. Orlando’s family don’t even try to hide their excruciating transphobia; the doctors and police don’t trust anything she says, going out of their way to double-check their suspicions. A self-proclaimed ally, a detective from the Sexual Offences Unit, soon shows her true colours when she tries to rewrite the story of a consenting relationship into the case of abuse. This power struggle in an unequal fight is heartbreaking to follow, and it’s distressing to watch the malice that the heroine is exposed to.

A Fantastic Woman lets us see the events through Marina’s eyes. As spectators, we’re the only silent and empathetic witnesses of her fight she doesn’t share with anybody else, which makes the story feel even more intimate. We’re alongside her as she tries to fight for her right to be respected. At the beginning, she complies to the irrational whims that her lover’s family come up with. In hopes of figuring it out, she gives up the car, the flat, and even the dog she was given by her partner. But we’re taken on a transformation journey that predates the scenes we’re served; midway through the film, the boyfriend of Marina’s sister remarks that the history of transphobic attacks she’s suffered is much broader than the utterly condemnable hostility from Orlando’s family.

A poignant performance from Daniela Vega makes this film unquestionably stellar. Her charisma and strength fill her character as she tries to defy the inexcusable injustice coming at her from every single direction. She’s compelling in the scenes that reveal Marina’s defencelessness, masterfully leading us through the dramatic moments. But the ability to show how she finds her power to retaliate is also enthralling and makes us watch her with our fists clenched in anger.

Sebastián Lelio isn’t afraid to use visual metaphors to emphasise his point. The scene in the nightclub, when Marina tries to numb her pain with a stranger, transforms into a revue that follows every single movement of our heroine. And similarly striking is the scene in which Marina fights an intense wind that becomes a culminating point of her struggle. She knows that it never rains but it pours, and struggles under the weight of the world she carries on her shoulders, but holds onto her bravery to fight on.  Many of the big screen moments allude to others’ perception of her, too; she’s humiliated in a gynaecologist’s room and shamed by Orlando’s family who gag her and leave her in the backstreet. We befriend the protagonist through the close-ups – and she’s often alone with her pain on the big screen, too.

Intimate and painful, the film engages the audience and unites them in empathy by making them the observers of an indefensible chain of cruelty that tries to cow the protagonist. Thanks to Daniela Vega and the excellent framing choices, the confessionary character of this chronicle of humiliation speaks volumes about the immense strength embodied into one fantastic woman – and she rises every single time, even from the worst of humiliations served by her prejudiced environment, leaving us with a lingering message.

A Fantastic Woman was showcased as a part of the 61st London Film Festival. It’ll open in the UK on the 2nd of March 2018.

Kasia Kwasniewska

Editor in Chief

Passionate about far too many things. Loves reading, watching films, eyeing (and producing) good design, listening to music and stuffing her face with chocolate on a daily basis. Cooks from time to time, and drinks far too much coffee to be a normal human being. Liked my work? Buy me a coffee!

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