Year of release: 2017 Directed by Sebastián Lelio. Starring: Daniela Vega, Francisco Reyes, Luis Gnecco, Aline Küppenheim, and Nicolás Saavedra.
Winner of this year’s Oscar for best foreign language film, A Fantastic Woman tells the story of a transwoman who must confront her older partner’s grieving and increasingly hostile family after his sudden death due to a brain aneurism. The film functions as a chronicle of daily discrimination punctuated with magical realism as she sees her lover’s ghost wherever she goes, which functions as both an escape and a comfort to her.
Honestly, I must confess that I’m really not sure what to make of this film. On the one hand, Daniela Vega gives a fantastic performance (pun not intended), and she was a consultant for the experience of transwomen, so perhaps I should give the filmmakers the benefit of the doubt. It is clear that the film wants to be a call to treat everyone we meet with compassion, and it gives visibility to a part of the population which is often overlooked. On the other hand, there’s a sort of savage glee the film takes in depicting the abuse and degradation Marina (Vega) suffers over and over and over and… Yes, I’m sure many transpeople face that level of discrimination, but here it comes across as a manipulative stacking of the deck for two reasons.
First, similar to The Help’s ridiculous caricature of racists, which enables many white people to pat themselves on the back and think they’re not racist while refusing to challenge any ingrained cultural racism they harbor, the transphobic characters here are so extreme that they create a sort of security bubble for any nominally progressive person watching this. And if we’re honest, ninety-nine percent of the people who watch this will most likely be some degree of progressive. I’m sure there are many more people this degree of transphobic than The Help’s sort of racist, but the portrayal comes across as a cheap shot at moral superiority.
Further undermining the film’s depiction of transphobia is the scenario in which Marina encounters her lover’s family. She meets them after his death, and they want to prevent her from attending the wake and funeral, solely because she is transgendered. The idea that anyone might harbor resentment toward the person who broke up their family regardless of their gender identity is never seriously considered. Conflating the two motivations undermines both the bigotry of the former and the more reasonable, if selfish, anger of the latter.
Secondly, heaping on the discrimination and abuse so heavy-handedly means the only way we can identify with Marina is to pity her. She’s an object for our pity, which I don’t think is a positive portrayal of anyone. Thankfully, she’s not raped, but it would have been perfectly in keeping with the tone of the film if she had been. A few scenes break away from the misery of the rest of the film when Marina can be herself or dream about the world as she wishes it was, and they’re welcome reliefs both dramatically and thematically.
However, I have to give the film credit for Vega’s performance as she does a very good job at creating a nuanced character trapped in an utter hell. She is a hundred times better at portraying a transperson who is an actual human being than Eddie Redmayne was when he portrayed a preposterously concocted straight man who liked to play dress-up in The Danish Girl. While it’s possible the filmmakers are just depicting the hellish world Marina is forced to inhabit, I’m not convinced they aren’t perpetuating that hell with some of their stylistic choices – the filming of a physical examination due to a creepy and prurient social worker comes foremost to mind.
When Marina first meets her lover’s adult son, he inquires whether she’s had sexual reassignment surgery, because he cannot know how to act toward her unless he knows what kind of genitals she has. She tells him never to ask that, and the notion that we can treat people as human beings regardless of their gender is made strikingly apparent. However, after that scene, the film takes a coy, nearly voyeuristic interest regarding where Marina is in her transition, repeatedly teasing the audience and inviting them to speculate how much of a woman she is, while simultaneously saying how wrong it is to do so.
Postscript: when I Googled Daniela Vega to make sure I was spelling her name correctly for this review, the top search term was, “Daniela Vega before.” Based on the film’s treatment of her and its obsession with the state of her transition, that makes sense.
Personal recommendation: C+
Content advisory: A non-sexual but nasty assault, several scenes of nudity, some obscene language, non-graphic love-making.
Suggested audience: Adults with discernment