One of the surprises of this year’s Academy Awards was Sebastián Lelio Chilean film, A Fantastic Woman, taking out the gong for the best foreign film. It tells the story of Marina, a trans woman, whose newfound happiness is torn apart by the sudden death of her partner and benefactor Orlando. As she attempts to pull together the strands of her disintegrating existence she is confronted with the polite inhumanity of Orlando’s family, who seek to erase her from the final year of Orlando’s life and the upcoming funeral rites.
To Bruno (Orlando’s son) and Sonia (Orlando’s estranged wife), Marina is a constant embarrassment. She exists as a reminder of Orlando’s failings as a patriarch and is an assault on their “normal” bountiful lives. Thrust from her hard-fought comforts, Marina attempts to come to peace with her devastating loss, navigate institutional suspicion and rebuild her shattered life.
There is a lot to commend about Lelio’s film. First and foremost Daniela Vega’s performance as Marina is exceptional. We truly feel Marina’s humiliation and trauma but also her struggle of being composed and dignified in the face of performative supportiveness and dismissive cruelty. When Lelio relies on Vega’s musical talents the film really soars and is both visually captivating and melodically thrilling. Aline Küppenheim as Sonia and Nicolás Saavedra as Bruno also provide great performances. Their characters’ inability to reconcile with Orlando in life and their resulting reconstruction of him in death is complexly portrayed and, while never condoned by the filmmaker, is tenderly understood. There is also a subplot where Marina is investigated by Antonia (a detective played by Amparo Noguera) over the mysterious bruises found on Orlando’s body.
Ultimately, however, this is a film with parts greater than its whole. While many of the film’s set pieces (the graveyard, the opening dinner and the musical number in the club) are captivating, the connective tissue of the film and its pacing leaves much to be desired. Lelio is content to have Marina aimlessly roam Santiago and eventually this naturalistic style becomes painfully monotonous. Throughout the second and third act, we are introduced to characters of seemingly great importance who simply never show up again. While this film is clearly inspired by the great works of Pedro Almodóvar, it lacks his trademark energy and dynamism and as it progresses it loses its narrative focus.
This film is a powerful social testament to the marginalization of trans people by institutional and social forces, and as an example of political queer cinema, it is very admirable. However as a film, it fails the most important tests; it is thematically uneven, structurally unsound and often painfully dull.
As this film ended, I remember the woman sitting next to me in the theatre turned to her friend and remark “It ended beautifully but gosh it took a long time to get there”. I agree with her offhand review wholeheartedly. While many viewers of A Fantastic Woman will forgive its flaws due to its great central performance, beautiful musical set pieces and powerful social agenda, for me, it wasn’t nearly as fantastic as the title suggests.
You can catch Fantastic Woman on an illegal streaming service near you