Even in our modern world aware of privilege and oppression, we’re all conscious of the assumptions that people make about us based on first impressions. Chilean director Sesbastian Lelio explores the effects of these assumptions on a transwoman in the aftermath of a tragedy in the humane character study “A Fantastic Woman”.
The film follows Marina (Daniela Vega) as she tries to rebuild her life following the death of a loved one. She meets a large variety of people that each have their own assumptions about her. She is assumed to be a man, a sex worker, a mistress and a homewrecker throughout the film. Vega’s naturalistic performance combined with Lelio and Gonzalo Maza’s keen ear for dialogue make these scenes quietly tense and illuminating whilst avoiding melodrama.
The film balances this sense of realism with the more melodramatic elements of the story – they feel complementary rather than contradictory throughout the piece. Even when Marina is storming the funeral in a scene that other directors would fill with soap opera histrionics, the film stays restrained in order to find realistic emotion within the scene.
As Previously in Gloria, Lelio has a knack for championing unheard female narratives. In A Fantastic Woman, the focus mostly concerns portraying the full reality of Marina’s life. She is a three-dimensional person in a society that would like to put her in a box and project their assumptions onto her. The film expertly balances the negative views of others who focus solely on Marina’s gender with the wide spectrum of her experiences. In comparison to other recent features about trans people, even successful, heartfelt ones such as Tomboy and Tangerine, this piece finds a rare level of nuance in the interactions between the characters.
The film’s secret weapon in this regard is Vega, who gives a complete and real performance. The amount of pain she can wordlessly convey is very moving as much of the film is inspired by her experiences. Initially, Lelio intended to only use Vega as a consultant as previously she was known only for her work as a singer. Thankfully, he cast her in the lead as the film would surely be less successful without the authentic central performance.
All the craft work in this film is sensational. The use of colour makes the cinematography pop from the screen and the few diversions into magical realism in the film are shot beautifully. The location work is extraordinary too. This vision of Santiago is both spectacular visually and purposely ordinary which makes the city seem like a real and vibrant place.
In the end, A Fantastic Woman is likely to make a strong impression on both trans and cisgender viewers. The film has a stunning empathy for its characters that resonates through the dialogue and the visuals. Perhaps this could be an impactful step towards trans representation in global cinema.
A Fantastic Woman is screening at Glasgow Film Theatre between the 5th of March – 11th of March. Anyone aged between 15 and 25 can get a free card from GFT that entitles them to £5.50 tickets to any standard screening.
By Jack Henderson