“When I look at you, I don’t know what I’m seeing.”
It’s a remark that rips through the heart of Marina Vidal (Daniela Vega) when she meets her deceased lover’s ex-wife for the first time in the Oscar-winning Chilean drama A Fantastic Woman (Una Mujer Fantástica).
Marina, a transgender woman, takes the ignorant insult without giving much of an emotional response — but behind her eyes, the anger, humiliation and dejection is evident. It’s obvious the pain is something she knows all too well, but isn’t something she’ll allow to define her.
Directed and co-written by Sebastián Lelio (Gloria), A Fantastic Woman lives up to its title twofold – with its heroine Marina standing strong in an incredibly uncomfortable position, and Vega, a transgender Chilean actress, giving her character life and authenticity audiences rarely get to witness in film today. As Marina, Vega delivers a measured and tender performance as her character figures her own way to confront a delicate situation.
When Marina’s older boyfriend Orlando (Francisco Reyes) suddenly dies, his family wants nothing to do with her. They want her to get out of his apartment as soon as possible, and they especially don’t want her to attend his wake or funeral for fear that her presence will be an embarrassment to those paying their respects. Marina, however, isn’t about to concede without a fight. She loved Orlando and couldn’t care less that his rude ex-wife Sonia (Aline Küppenheim) and intimidating son Bruno (Nicolás Saavedra) despise her existence.
Looked upon with disdain by Orlando’s hateful family, apart from his brother Gabo (Luis Gnecco), who treats her with kindness, Marina doesn’t allow anyone to break her spirit. In one harrowing scene that plays a bit too literally, she is attacked by Bruno and his friends, who wrap her face with Scotch tape. When she gets a glimpse of her reflection in a car window, she sees the embodiment of the monster they perceive her to be.
Despite a couple of other scenes lacking nuance — the film could’ve done without Marina listening to Aretha Franklin’s “Natural Woman” and another where she’s walking against the wind in a dreamlike state — A Fantastic Woman is an intriguing look at the grieving process, identity politics and the fierce determination of a member of an underrepresented faction in society.
Mainstream audiences might be familiar with transgender actors like Laverne Cox (TV’s Orange is the New Black) and Chaz Bono (TV’s American Horror Story) and transgender characters like Maura Pfefferman (Jeffrey Tambor) from TV’s Transparent, but if cinema is truly becoming a more progressive art form than it has ever been, audiences will embrace talent like Vega without hesitation. In A Fantastic Woman, she proves to be worthy of that and much more.