A FANTASTIC WOMAN — Review by Cate Marquis

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A Fantastic Woman begins on a romantic note, with an older man listening to a singer with a band. In high heels, short skirt, and a golden voice, Marina Vidal is pretty but there is something a bit different her. The couple go out, then back home. Late at night, the man awakens and doesn’t feel well. Despite a desperate rush to the hospital, Marina loses her beloved to an aneurysm. In her grief, Marina faces a new problem, her older lover Orlando’s (Francisco Reyes) disapproving family, and then police who seem overly interested in her gender. Continue reading…

A Fantastic Woman is a moving study of grief and inner strength, as a transsexual woman has to cope with grief at the loss of her lover in the face of social prejudice and family disapproval, something she does with quiet but persistent dignity and grace. This fantastic Chilean movie is on the Oscar nominees for Best Foreign Language film, and a strong contender for the award.

The key to the film’s remarkable emotional impact is the restrained yet powerful performance of its lead, actress and singer Daniela Vega, in her second film. Vega, who is a transgender woman, was first brought in by director Sebastian Lelio as a consultant but ultimately won the central role. Her striking looks and penetrating gaze, a mix of sadness, resignation and quiet self-possession is hypnotic, tugging at our hearts as Marina works through her grief in the face of the insults.

At the hospital, Marina copes with suddenly being an outsider on her own life, as Orlando’s s the family rushes in to take over. She defers to his ex-wife and grown son, but they are barely civil to her, and are certainly not kind. Some of what Marina endures from them is what one might expect from a family disapproving of their family member’s younger lover. At first they are somewhat polite, although never kind, but their tone soon veers into homophobia and then even more unpleasantness specifically about her being trans. Even more disturbing is the interest of the police, who question her about Orlando’s death and the persistently show up again and again, hinting at some legal action. Despite it all, Marina conducts herself with class, quietly but determinedly standing up for herself and insisting on being treated with some decency.

Daniela Vega’s performance as Marina is dignified, vulnerable and breathtakingly, bracingly inspiring to watch. In one scene, director Lelio creates a visual metaphor for Marina’s situation and character, in which she walking into the face of a rising wind, as the landscape around her deteriorates. It is beautifully shot and Marina all the time she maintains her composure and keeps moving forward.

A Fantastic Woman is a moving, deeply human film about the experience of transgender woman, featuring a fantastic performance by its lead Daniel Vega.

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Cate Marquis

Cate Marquis is a film critic and historian based in the St. Louis, Missouri area. Marquis reviews film for the St. Louis Jewish Light weekly newspaper and Playback: stl website, as well as other publications. The daughter of artist Paul Marquis, she was introduced to classic and silent films by her father, as well as art and theater. Besides reviewing films, she lectures on film history, particularly the silent film era, has served on the board of the Meramec Classic Film Festival and is a long-time collaborator with the St. Louis International Film Festival, serving on various juries.