“A Fantastic Woman” tells a story that is all too common in the LGBTQ community. Following the death of her partner Orlando (Francisco Reyes), Marina Vidal (Daniela Vega), a transgender woman in Chile, must work through her grief as her partner’s family assumes all of their shared property. She is forbidden from attending the funeral, forced to leave her apartment and subjected to harassment and discrimination.
The subject matter of “A Fantastic Woman” is poignant and deeply distressing, but the structure of the film makes it inaccessible. While enormous work is invested into Marina’s character development and the film’s visual metaphors, the other components of the film — such as its supporting cast and plot points — are neglected entirely.
The film’s structure leans heavily on a specific form of realism. The camera’s fixed attachment to the protagonist at her most intimate moments creates a sense that the viewer is connected to Marina, but never welcomed into her consciousness. The camera follows her everyday life, creating an eerie sense of surveillance. We see Marina getting in and out of the car. We see Marina going for a run with her dog. We see Marina coming in and out of parking garages. Marina resting in her apartment. Marina waiting tables. This portrait would be effective, would even be deeply intimate, if her character were allowed to move beyond it.
One of the most unfortunate aspects of the film is that Vega’s artistic choices are limited by the undeveloped characters that surround her. The supporting cast was seemingly brought into the film solely to create a particular social force — a collection of personas whose collective, singular ambition is to embody transphobia and prejudice. One can interpret this as the would-be point of the film — to portray an unsympathetic world — but in practice, it creates a chain of scenarios in which Vega is rarely afforded an opportunity to play off of the surrounding cast. Their motivations are blunt and cyclical. Marina’s static interactions with the external world unfortunately become the driving conflict.
The rejoinders that Marina produces in response to these conflicts are circumscribed to the dynamics in which they exist. There are, of course, genuine moments of shock. There is also the hurt that follows. There is even the promise of rage, but that too becomes something that Marina is asked to forfeit in order to march forward with the plot.
This is the trouble. The film attempts to create a character-driven narrative without ever letting its protagonist sit in the driver’s seat. Instead, she is simply watched. Instead, she becomes something against which things may be thrown, with the landscape of the film changing before she can ever throw back.
It could be argued that this, too, is the point. That grief is a plane in which we do not get to pick our battles. That societal stigmatization is an arresting series of interactions that do not follow logic, or closure, or the opportunity to respond or even the time to emotionally work through a response. But the film does not give hatred that kind of complexity.
There are aspects of the film that shine, however. Daniela Vega gives an intense, deeply personal performance. Director Sebastián Lelio also brings a sharp eye for visual metaphors, leaving the viewer with provocative and emotionally charged images.
But the visual rhetoric ultimately falls short. Much like Wong Kar-wai’s “Happy Together,” “A Fantastic Woman” uses the iconic Iguazu Falls — a magnificent waterfall on the border of Argentina and Brazil — as a symbolic metaphor for promise and loss in a queer relationship. But unlike Wong Kar-wai, Lelio does not make the metaphor work to its full potential, underutilizing it in the same way he neglects the supporting cast.
The narrative lays the groundwork for the film to be beautiful and complex, offering the beginnings of emotionally enriched symbolism and heart-sinking plot points. But “A Fantastic Woman” sacrifices a great deal of its promise in order to achieve an evasive and fruitless plot. For all of the promise the film’s narrative holds, for all of the talent of Daniela Vega, its underutilization of all the elements it held within its grasp becomes its greatest disappointment.
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