Marina Vidal (Daniela Vega) is standing outside an emergency room at the hospital, watching through a pale, square window as doctors struggle to resuscitate her romantic partner Orlando (Francisco Reyes). Hours earlier, Marina and Orlando were celebrating her birthday over dinner, their smiles as radiant as the neon glow of red, orange and purple-colored lights. In this palette, in this darkened hue, Marina and Orlando are able to be seen wholly as themselves, an idealistic perception that is, for once, as clear as reality.
But the lights shattered. The smiles are broken Orlando is dead from an aneurysm. From this point on, Marina will face a barrage of seemingly insurmountable challenges, grievances and insults in her attempts to mourn her loved one because she is transgender. Through Marina’s struggles and triumphs, “A Fantastic Woman” reveals itself as a spirited piece of storytelling, an ode to a marginalized community and a fable about humanity’s ability for compassion and tendency for hatred, and how easy it is to fall-between those two.
“A Fantastic Woman’s” key themes are dealt through characters explicit insults and demands and Marina’s implicit reactions. She is accosted by Orlando’s family members at different points throughout the film, pushed into a wall by his son Bruno, (Nicolas Saavedra), and told the very sight of her is disgusting by his ex-wife Sonia (Aline Kuppenheim). Marina isn’t afraid to hold her own against them but rarely is she in the control of the situation, always the reactor to the aggressor, looming on the outskirts of their lives in her blue-buttoned dress.
Marina is also forced to comply with police demands after Orlando’s autopsy revealed suspicious results. These include participating in a humiliating body identification sessions, and having to answered forced lines of question that make her basically admit she was not born a woman. Marina isn’t wholly without blame for the police suspicion, as she left the hospital shortly after his death without notifying anyone. But Marina, hospital officials and police officers each know that her gender identity, sadly, will be given more emphasis and importance in this situation than anyone would like to admit.
“A Fantastic Woman” isn’t the first movie that’s dealt with LGBT themes and issues regarding the trans community. But it’s notable for its depiction of not just gender identity but identity in general. Marina is asked to display an ID by a police officer near the beginning of the film and she is reluctant to do so, we assume because that ID card lists her birth gender. But when Marina is questioned by a woman police officer at the restaurant where she works, Marina doesn’t hesitate to ask the officer for her ID to prove who she is. Even Orlando’s family stumbles over their own supposed roles, with Sonia first referring to herself as his wife but then correcting herself as his ex-wife. When Marina meets with her singing instructor for lessons, she’s chastised by him for not embracing her identity as a true “singer,” instead spending her time fronting nightclub salsa and mambo bands. Everyone’s identity is questioned, their supposed descriptors and labels written in washable ink.
But “A Fantastic Woman’s” best portrayal of this struggle with identity isn’t a character-motivated one but a visual metaphor. Late in the film, Marina is walking outside on a bright day when two men carry a large mirror in front of her. As Marina approaches the mirror, it bends back and forth with the wind, obscuring her appearance and figure, never portraying her exactly as it should. She is a woman not afraid to live in broad daylight and even her own reflection refuses to acknowledge her. It’s no surprise that she prefer to spend time with her shadow instead.
Strong writing gives “A Fantastic Woman” its spine but it’s Sebastian Lelio’s visceral and colorful direction that gives the movie its soul. Most of the film is shot conventionally, using standard framing and positioning techniques, experimenting in only rare cases like Maria’s encounter with the mirror. But occasionally, Orlando’s figure reappears from the beyond within Marina’s view. Lelio then shifts his lighting to those earlier hues of red, orange and purple, when the couple was still together and happy. The Chilean director is telling a story through color and mood more than words and conflicts. Some audiences wouldn’t know what the characters were saying without spanish subtitles, but through Lelio’s direction, we always know how to feel.
Music also holds a strong storytelling significance in this movie. Composed by Matthew Herbert, the film’s score includes frequent use of a flute in short bursts, playing around five or six notes at a time. Normally an instrument associated with grace and serenity, the flute here feels unfinished and uncertain, reflecting the nature of Marina’s life in the wake of Orlando’s death.
But one song and scene in particular breathes a gust of storytelling life into the movie. At the conclusion of “A Fantastic Woman,” Marina is sharing the stage with her music instructor pianist and three other musicians, ready to deliver a performance of “Ombra mai fu,” a melody from the George Frideric handel opera “Serse.” Marina stuns with her immaculate, high-pitched voice, no less encapsulating even though how we’ve heard her sing at other points in the film. It’s not to much the high-pitched voice that surprises us, as much as how it seems so impossibly high pitched.
But the song choice itself is also revealing. In “Ombra mai fu,” the melody Marina sings is intended for a soprano castrato, a type of male singer who was historically castrated before reaching sexual maturity. Her genitalia is never shown in the film, although it is heavily referenced, like when she stares down at a mirror placed on her own crotch, only seeing the reflection of her face. The song’s lyrics, such as “may thunder, lightning, and storms never disturb your dear peace, nor may you by blowing winds be profaned,” are also cleverly interspersed throughout the film, with one scene devoted to a massive gust of wind as it tries to knock Marina onto the pavement.
But the final lyrics, “Never was a shade of any plant dearer and more lovely, or more sweet,” speak truer to Marina more than any symbolism throughout the film. We find ourselves wondering what Marina’s life was like before now, sometimes desperately hoping for an extended monologue where she’ll delve into her struggles as a woman, how cruel society is against her, or just anything that might be on her mind. Perhaps that’s the film’s biggest flaw, never quite giving us a glimpse of who Marina really is beyond this quarrel. But it’s also part of the movie’s triumph, a steady meditation on a resilient character who is dear, lovely, sweet and uncompromising fantastic.