The issue of transgender rights and the treatment of trans individuals has been at the forefront of public discourse in recent years and Chilean filmmaker Sebastián Lelio’s latest work, A Fantastic Woman, tackles these subjects head on. The film follows Marina (Daniela Vega), a trans woman who, after the sudden death of her partner Orlando (Francisco Reyes Morandé), is forced to deal with doctors, police and Orlando’s family, including his ex-wife (who is referred to by the family after the tragedy as his wife).
This is an example of the family’s efforts to distance themselves, and their deceased relative, from Marina, excluding her from the funeral and keeping her out of the loop, even when it comes to Orlando’s apartment, which Marina is still living in, and his dog Diabla, who he had given to Marina. They appear much less interested in mourning the loss of their relative than they do in making Marina’s life hell. Orlando’s brother Gabo (played by Chilean cinema stalwart Luis Gnecco) is the only sympathetic voice in an otherwise baying crowd, but his attempts to help Marina fall on deaf ears from the rest of his family as well as from Marina herself, who is unimpressed by his meek interventions.
Like the family, the authorities subject Marina to treatment that would never be deemed acceptable in the case of non-trans individuals. One investigator accuses Marina of being a prostitute, while another brazenly implies that she might have killed him. For the audience these interactions are skin-crawlingly awkward but also deeply saddening, as there is never a sense that the film is being anything other than brutally honest about the real lived experiences of trans individuals.
Vega shines in the lead role, playing a loving and tender woman who has been hardened by the battles that she faces in trying to live a normal life. As the film progresses her bitterness and coldness grow and threaten to consume her. It is because of this that the fleeting moments of passion, such when she attends a singing lesson and reveals an extraordinarily beautiful voice that conveys all the pain she has been dealt over the course of her life, and yet at the same time all of the joy which she experiences upon being allowed to be herself, are so deeply moving.