By Chelsea Phillips-Carr
A Fantastic Woman opens with scenes of domestic bliss. On her birthday, Marina (Daniela Vega), a twentysomething trans woman, is taken out for dinner and dancing by her older boyfriend Orlando, before going back home to their shared apartment. Later that night, the Orlando passes away. What begins as romantic perfection quickly becomes an account of Marina’s struggle to be respected as a woman, and a person. We watch as she attempts to carve out a space in which to grieve, her face filling the screen in close-ups, allowing for both a glorification of her image and a confrontation with her emotions. Marina is a fighter: she deals with transphobia, homophobia, and misogyny in every register, from Orlando’s meek brother who can’t stand up for her, to his son, who dishes out abuse, to the law enforcement officers who treat her like a criminal or a victim (the only explanations which, for them, justify how she could have had a relationship with a cis man).
Marina’s situation is a near-constant stream of degradation, amidst danger and fear. While Vega conveys this struggle, she also conveys great strength — and, refreshingly, we also see Marina enjoying happiness and love. With Orlando and her sister, Marina is cared for; on her own, she cultivates her operatic singing career, or takes time to get her nails done. Lelio allows Marina to be a real person who is loved and has her own interests, while also dealing with the violence of society; his approach is all-encompassing rather than reductive.
There are clumsy elements in A Fantastic Woman, such as the name of Marina’s late boyfriend (a nod to Virginia Woolf’s androgynous heroine), or a scene in which Aretha Franklin’s “(You Make Me Feel Like) A Natural Woman” happens to play on the radio. Lelio’s film isn’t perfect, but through Vega’s presence, it does its best to give full cinematic agency to a woman traditionally marginalized.