A few months ago, I found myself feeling sorely disappointed by a film I had long waited to see. The time was August, the place was Locarno, and the movie was Nadir Moknèche’s Lola Pater, screened in the festival’s iconic Piazza Grande. Featuring legendary French actress Fanny Ardant as a transgender woman reunited with her long-lost son (a plot that, unoriginal as it may have been, promised plenty of drama), I thought I was in for a treat. But Lola Pater never met my expectations. In fact, I felt as though it mocked the transgender lead it purported to celebrate, and in ways I couldn’t fully articulate then, I began wondering whether Ardant was herself somehow part of the problem. The actress’s legendary portfolio may have made her look like a bullet-proof choice, but in the context of the recent renaissance of LGBTQ cinema, with storytellers considerably more aware of the need to stay true to their characters’ voices and identities, her casting felt like a step backwards. Shouldn’t movies about transgender women naturally star transgender actresses?
I’m starting this review of Sebastián Lelio’s A Fantastic Woman with Moknèche’s Lola Pater because the reasons I was entranced by Lelio’s Best Foreign Film Oscar nominee are the same I felt cheated by Moknèche’s Locarno entry. In Moknèche’s clumsy and cliché-packed script, Ardant, a cisgender actress playing a transgender woman, precipitates into a circus animal to poke and laugh at. By contrast, Lelio’s pitch-perfect lead character pick, Daniela Vega, a transgender first-time actress with a background in opera singing, does the opposite. Naturally in synch with the character she embodies with a moving mix of candour and courage, Vega's performance turns A Fantastic Woman into a painfully vivid tragedy, whose questions feel universal in scope.
Starring Vega as Marina, a late-twenties Chilean and Santiago-based transgender woman who suffers the death of her 57-year boyfriend Orlando (Francisco Reyes) and the violence his family wages against her in the days preceding the funeral, A Fantastic Woman is an achingly powerful tale of resilience, a love story in the purest sense of the term: a film that challenges the structures dictating the ways love between two people should feel, look, and sound like.
For Marina’s struggle is much more than an attempt to vindicate a relationship: it is a battle to reassert one’s right to exist as an individual in a society that chastizes whatever stands outside the spectrum of permitted norms. “So you guys actually liked each other—it wasn’t just sex?” a puzzled policewoman asks Marina, a few seconds after insinuating Orlando had hired her as a prostitute. It is one in a long series of progressively more humiliating encounters with her late partner’s relatives and the authorities called to investigate his death, all of them underscoring the same message: love between a man and a transgender woman cannot exist; their relationship, as Orlando’s wife Sonia (Aline Küppenheim) maliciously puts it, was nothing more than an old man’s perversion.
But the violence Marina is subject to goes deeper. Awarded the Silver Lion at the 67th Berlinale, Lelio’s script (co-authored with Gonzalo Maza) perceptively captures the virulent homophobia she is exposed to as a dehumanizing straight-jacket. “When I see you I just don’t know what I’m looking at—you’re a chimera,” Sonia remarks, as she forbids Marina to attend the funeral, lest her presence could threaten Orlando’s family. Insulted verbally, psychologically and physically, Marina is thrown into a Kafkaesque nightmare whose ultimate goal is to reduce her to a subhuman, and yet—with otherworldly stoicism—she never snaps back. Silenced and humiliated, she finds refuge in singing classes and dream-like visions masterfully shot by cinematographer Benjamín Echazarreta, where she is finally reunited with Orlando’s ghost—an oneiric world Lelio brings to life through lyrical choreographies, and which composer Matthew Herbert is able to evoke with a magical, flute and harp-filled score.
And while Marina resists the temptation to unleash her rage, the camerawork also refrains from giving in to voyeurism. Lelio’s directing shows a delicate, profoundly respectful touch: when Marina is told Orlando has passed away, Lelio shows her sobbing inside a toilet cubicle, but places the camera outside of it, the four walls somehow protecting her grief, and when the police authorities force her to strip naked during a humiliating examination, the lens discretely shies away at the right moment.
Lelio’s previous works (see his 2013 Gloria, and 2017 Disobedience) had shown a keen eye for female-centred plots, portraying women fighting against calcified patriarchal structures. A Fantastic Woman follows the same leitmotiv, and consolidates Lelio’s name as one of the most humanist auteurs working today. What makes the latest entry in his canon stand out as a remarkable work is its ability to succeed where so many other past trans-themed films have failed. Marina’s tragedy is not turned into a spectacle, nor is she reduced to a fetishized stereotype, but a human being fighting for universal, inalienable rights. “I don’t know what you are,” Orlando’s son Bruno (Nicolás Saavedra) spitefully tells her as he tries to evict her from his father’s flat. Fierce and composed, Marina replies with a dignified look: “I’m the same as you.”