With Gloria in 2013 and A Fantastic Woman in 2017, Sebastian Lelio has proved himself something of a darling of the Berlin Film Festival in recent years, bringing prize-winning stories of the sort of women we rarely see on screen. Now, as A Fantastic Woman arrives on UK shores, it comes laden with expectations, not only thanks to its critical acclaim, but also its star-studded producers list (including Pablo Larrain and Maren Ade) and more than timely story of fighting against transphobia. For the most part, Lelio’s stylish, swirling film lives up to the anticipation.
After the sudden death-by-aneurysm of her older boyfriend Orlando (Francisco Reyes), Marina Vidal (played by trans actress Daniela Vega) is cast adrift. Orlando provided her with care both emotional and material, and his departure leaves her without a home, a car, or a friendly face in her everyday life. Orlando’s vile family cannot bring themselves to show one shred of human decency or compassion in Marina’s time of grief, calling her a freak and even going so far as to physically assault her for daring to be herself in their vicinity. Though less openly hostile, the police and medical staff that Marina has to deal with in the immediate aftermath of Orlando’s death are hardly any better.
None of the figures of authority can get over their awkwardness at dealing with a trans woman, referring to Marina by her birth name of Daniel and subjecting her to a litany of emotional and physical humiliations. It’s a tough, often infuriating watch, with Marina’s suppressed but seething anger becoming our own, but, vitally, it’s not gratuitous. Marina is never treated as just a helpless victim, given plenty of agency, and we see every scene from her point of view. It’s a technique that Lelio uses to encourage empathy, supported by a good lead in Vega.
Though sometimes too internal to be fully engaging, Vega’s is a strong, carefully considered performance, giving insight into someone fighting a desperate inner struggle against total collapse. None of the other characters really register, mere ciphers and obstacles in Marina’s story, though Orlando’s frequent ghostly reappearances set the stage for a tone of heightened reality to begin to take hold. Sublime music and often brilliant visuals sink you into the world Lelio creates, a world that sometimes disintegrates into striking daydream sequences.
These moments, such as a windstorm that turns the world sideways and the transformation of a grotty bar into a glittering disco bursting with life, are pulled off with thrilling panache, though the choice to have each of these scenes end with Vega staring directly at the camera becomes odd through overuse. It’s not a perfect film, but as cinematic representation of trans stories it’s a step forward, also working just as well as a timeless tale of resilience in the face of a thoughtless and cowardly world.