A Fantastic Woman is a rich tapestry of human perception. It’s a deeply layered character mystery from Latin America about the love of a trans woman for an older gentleman. We are treated with an opening shot of the Iguazu Falls in Argentina, water pouring in an endless stream of beauty from all angles. Our perspective shifts over the Falls, casting a wide-eyed glimpse at the voracious natural power inherent in our world.
Marina (Daniela Vega) too is a force of nature. Her life has afforded her relative comfort as a trans woman. She works in a circus-like arcade as a waitress while also performing as a singer into the night. We’re introduced to her loving boyfriend–Orlando (Francisco Reyes)–on one such performance. He has given her another comfort, someone who is at home with everything she is. As he enters the club, she croons in dulcet tones:
Your love is like yesterday’s newspaper
which no one wants to read anymore
They go home together and Orlando promises her an adventure at the aforementioned Iguazu Falls. They make love and then – tragedy.
Orlando dies an untimely death. Everything falls out for Marina in a heartbeat. We see her in the parking lot of the hospital, trying to come to terms, and there are no terms whatsoever. She is lonely, without the enforcement of love for an identity that is questioned by everyone else. The hospital does not believe her papers, the family and ex-wife of Orlando do not trust her, she is alone, a good woman in a world that does not love her, without the one man who does.
This puts everything on its head. She goes to work and the fun house mirrors mock the impact of these destabilizing events on her character. Yes, she has become fractured. A wavering image in a mirror that cannot be trusted. And throughout we are shown a wide variety of mirrors that tell us lies. They do reflect us, but they too have been shaped by the society in a certain way. Whether they’re a fun house, oblong, or their objects may be closer than they appear, not only are the illusory reflections from our given perspective, but they are tricks of the mind and eye. They cannot be believed completely and often give false impressions – images of her dead lover or of her own identity.
It becomes a film about centering oneself: that Marina is shot from the upper-body predominantly is a significant clue to what is happening. This is her image she has cultivated for the world. Makeup, long hair, developing breasts. This control over imaging gives her power in the film – by focusing on the top half there is a suggestion of strength and power.
The film does not drop off at any certain point – gaining momentum until Marina is literally flying through a club, reveling in her known womanhood. Chilean director Sebastián Lelio keeps it wound tight in the form of a Lynchian tale of surreal abandon. It never backs down from the spirit of strength even under adversity, defined by a fine score by Matthew Herbert.
A Fantastic Woman is a great pleasure of Latin cinema. Happily, it is worthy of all the praise and accolades. Do not misjudge this film. It may look one way, but then, looks can be incredibly deceiving.