I’m a cisgender person, so clearly, I am not in a position to speak for how well does this film get to the bone about the experience of being a trans woman, but I can’t shake off a very specific feeling off from watching A Fantastic Woman. That very feeling that I can’t shake off is just merely knowing that this film would not be nearly as good as I knew Daniela Vega was, because I know that there was potential for something more intimate yet as is, I still found myself engrossed. I found myself engrossed because what I was watching, as is, I felt I was witnessing a gripping drama about that experience but it can only get me so far before the film feels more miserable than I suspect it really should. To which, I suppose I get the idea that trans people still face vicious discrimination today, but is that everything cisgender audiences should be made to watch? Nevertheless, I am open to hearing from the perspectives of transgender individuals about what watching A Fantastic Woman had felt like.
Daniela Vega stars as Marina, a transgender waitress moonlighting as a nightclub singer. She is dating an older cisgender man, Orlando, who dies of a brain aneurysm. Eventually, Marina is left with the decision to meet up with the family of Orlando only to be subject to more discrimination while on the way, first from the ex-wife of Orlando and eventually from his family. I can only imagine that there is a very idea of fear that Lelio intended to convey from Marina’s perspective, especially as she is embracing her own identity and to that very extent, I do find something very admirable here. It’s admirable because it reaffirms that very sense that trans women are, and have always been women – no matter what the outside world, full of bigotry, will ever have to say. Lelio’s influences have gone from the works of Rainer Werner Fassbinder and Pedro Almodóvar, filmmakers that have emphasized such angles to varying degrees of success and it shows already in how he forms melodrama, clearly having learned from the masters.
To get the obvious out of the way, Daniela Vega is absolutely stunning in the role of Marina. Her performance is absolutely magnetic, and it’s what kept me engaged with this work. I can’t see this movie working as well as it did without her in the lead role. I only saw what Sebastian Lelio envisioned as a truly “fantastic woman” in that performance, because it’s clear that Lelio loves her character – so much to the point that the performance already is allowed the same freedom. I’m already looking forward to seeing Vega in something much bigger, because what she carries in this role goes beyond the film’s own limits – and it was something that I had already been worried about. This performance alone is enough to carry the film, but at the same time I am also wondering what this movie has to offer for that lens.
For everything about this that can so easily be admired, I can’t help but feel as if this film places far too much emphasis on Marina’s misery. Too much to the point that the experience ended up becoming outright uncomfortable, which I suppose was the idea that Lelio had wished to convey, but does every film centering around a marginalized group of people have to emphasize their pain to this degree? To a certain degree, I felt angry. I felt angry at the way Marina was treated all throughout the film, yes, but at the same time I was also angry at what Lelio wanted to convey about her identity. I felt angry because it seemed like this misery ended up becoming what it was that defined her character, and that ended up bothering me a great deal. I’m not in that position to speak for the experience, but I still felt that amidst the misery to which Marina felt, it felt somewhat empty.
What’s rather admirable about A Fantastic Woman ends up setting itself down a dangerous road (there’s a scene where “(You Make Me Feel Like) A Natural Woman” is playing and it feels incredibly misguided in the context of the film). Amidst the beautiful cinematography and Sebastián Lelio’s careful and tender direction, it seemed to define Marina more by her misery rather than as a human being. It never exactly felt nearly as progressive as I know it should have, but to say the very least, everything about Daniela Vega’s performance cannot be understated – for she truly deserved Academy Awards recognition for her efforts. Beyond her performance, I want to say that this film is worth watching in order to help get a better picture of the bigotry that trans people suffer because they do have important stories to tell, but at the same time I’m more interested to hear about what this film does for actual trans people because I cannot speak on their behalf.
Watch the trailer right here.
All images via Sony Pictures Classics.
Directed by Sebastián Lelio
Screenplay by Sebastián Lelio, Gonzalo Maza
Produced by Juan de Dios Larraín, Pablo Larraín, Sebastián Lelio, Gonzalo Maza
Starring Daniela Vega, Francisco Reyes
Release Year: 2017
Running Time: 104 minutes