“The film is praiseworthy for its good intentions and respectful tone, but there isn’t a sense of completion.”
by Ken Bakely
The title is meaningful. It’s hard not to be moved by the resolve and perseverance of Marina (Daniela Vega), the protagonist of Sebastián Lelio’s A Fantastic Woman. She’s a young waitress and musician, and, at the start of the film, is in a relationship with Orlando (Francisco Reyes), a middle-aged businessman. Their future seems bright; they are happy together. But difficulties begin, quickly and furiously – Orlando dies of an aneurysm one night, and Marina is left not only without a partner, but also the support and security that she enjoyed. The troubles begin in the hospital: the doctor eyes her with suspicion, wondering what someone her age would have been doing with someone his age. When she’s told to present her identification for archival purposes, we learn that Marina is a transgender woman.
It’s then when the film moves into its key conflict. Orlando’s ex-wife (Aline Küppenheim) views the relationship as a shameful secret, and tells Marina this in no uncertain terms. Most of the family refuses to acknowledge her as a woman, and wouldn’t think of inviting her to the funeral. Marina becomes ostracized within this group, not only having to grieve alone, but denied the ability for grief to even register. A Fantastic Woman operates in this struggle, a push against a world of intolerance and erasure. Is it possible that this character is meant to be a stand-in for a larger community as a whole? There are certainly a variety of indignities she suffers that could be taken as comprehensive. She has difficulty affirming her gender on her ID, is harassed in public, and is often thought of as less than valid.
The movie becomes episodic. Lelio uses a pile-on technique right out of a melodrama, but he doesn’t add the heightened emotional aesthetic that comes with the territory. On one hand, this is a relief, because playing fast and loose could have backfired significantly. However, remaining in this neutral zone – never dipping into tragedy or backwards into immobility – harms A Fantastic Woman in a more direct sense. The film demands sympathy for its main character in an endless loop, never stopping to think that it already established her as sufficiently compelling. It takes an engaging setup and shoehorns it into a monotonized, genericized call for civil liberties. The sporadic divergence into something more abstract, such as a musical sequence featuring a flying Marina, only serves to heighten the belief that there’s a vast well here that’s never tapped into.
Yet the character is interesting, and capable of maintaining attention on her own. Daniela Vega imbues Marina with a magnetism and budding wisdom, and we can’t take our eyes off her. Lelio often frames her in the center of every shot, having her all but stare right into camera (except for when she actually does). Later on, when the movie depicts her singing abilities, and films her onstage performing an aria, it becomes the glue through which each thematic concept is bound, and A Fantastic Woman fully recognizes a cohesive narrative. It’s no coincidence that the critical push again comes from Vega. It’s a connection of the poles, a final affirmation that the movie recognizes its goal, and explodes outwards with the energy it can only draw from an electric lead performance. Her work here is remarkably varied: she draws from the shattered but stiff-lipped endurance of all her character must go through, and pieces together an arc of willpower that hostile forces pull to the limits.
She creates a depthful interpretation, but ultimately one that comes about more through her talents and intuition than input from the script. A Fantastic Woman takes Marina through a sliding-scale wringer of disrespect, giving imbalanced lip service to the exploration of her mourning that set off the plot to begin with. It has the safe, skin-deep structure of a television pilot, ready to show us a little bit more next week, and start some more complicated narratives. But Lelio stops here, thin sketches and all, tying up the loose ends through unsatisfying resolutions and picky red herrings. Vega is a revelation, and the film is praiseworthy for its good intentions and respectful tone, but there isn’t a sense of completion to match these sharp assets.