In 2013, Sebastián Lelio gave us Gloria, a movie about a free-spirited 58 year-old woman seeking romance. In 2017, A Fantastic Woman, about a trans woman grieving for her partner. In 2018, Disobedience depicts the struggle of a lesbian couple set against the backdrop of a Jewish orthodox community. His films show us perspectives on womanhood that movies are rarely interested in or comfortable with exploring.
This one in particular won the 2018 Academy Award for Best Foreign Language Film. Now I’ve only seen 2 of the 5 nominees, so I cannot say I found it deserving of the honour, but I can say it at least deserved its nomination. This is a beautiful movie, in every sense of the word. Aesthetically, it looks and sounds beautiful. Sometimes the visuals enhance some mundane, everyday sight, other times, we’re presented with something surreal, visuals that escape realism and take us into pure, unfiltered emotion, whether it’s suffocation or ecstasy.
But beyond aesthetics, there’s something beautiful about the film’s depiction of life. Our protagonist is Marina, a trans woman in a loving, intimate relationship with a much older man Orlando. The plot kicks off with Orlando’s death, and that’s when we realise there really isn’t much of a plot to this film. It plays out as a sequence of uncomfortable conversations between Marina and members of Orlando’s family, or with a detective, or with just about everyone who is refusing to let her grieve in peace. This leads to a very relaxed, meandering pace that feels intimate and real.
In the absence of a plot, what holds the narrative together and keeps us engaged from one scene to the next is the central character. The film is a character study, and Marina proves absolutely worthy of such a study. No one box, feisty, subdued, cynical, determined can contain all that she is. The scenes of dialogue, and even the few without any, do a skillful job of peeling back the layers of this woman’s complicated mess of feelings. Even though we barely get to know Orlando, we feel Marina’s love for him, and want to be left alone to grieve with her. Much of the credit for this goes to Daniela Vega, who was the inspiration for Marina even before she agreed to play her. She gives a mesmerising, memorable performance, full of heart, passion and realism, a performance that can make us admire her energy even as it conveys her exhaustion with this cruel world. It is in this feeling of being able to see inside her soul that the the movie is able to rise above defining its protagonist as a victim.
Not everyone will love A Fantastic Woman, its pace, its structue, its rhythm may not appeal to all, but I do urge everyone to give this very good movie a try. Join me in celebrating just how fantastic of a woman this is.