To my eternal discredit, I only managed to see two of the five pictures nominated for Best Foreign Language Film at this year’s Oscars. The first was Russian entry Loveless, and, luckily for me, the second was A Fantastic Woman, the Chilean entry that ended up taking the big prize on Sunday night. It’s victory was another highlight in a ceremony that felt more inclusive than it has done in years, and Daniela Vega’s appearance as a presenter marked the first for an openly transgender performer in the history of the Academy Awards. Pretty cool, huh?
Set in modern day Chile, A Fantastic Woman tells the story of Marina Vidal (Daniela Vega), a transgender woman, full time waitress and part time nightclub singer whose seemingly happy and stable life is turned upside down when her older boyfriend, Orlando (Francisco Reyes), suddenly and unexpectedly passes away. Forced to move on from the future she envisioned for herself, the narrative follows Marina as she faces prejudice and aggression (both micro and full on) from authorities investigating Orlando’s death and from his immediate and distant family, most of whom are unable to accept Marina for both her identity as a trans woman and her place in Orlando’s life.
Just as the poster states, A Fantastic Woman is raw, captivating and beautiful, and it is also frustrating to the point of making one’s blood boil. To watch the repeated dismissive actions and attitudes of seemingly ‘traditional, everyday people’ towards an identity that they either refuse to accept or cannot understand is devastating and infuriating to witness, but this is exactly what the film is trying to achieve. Amidst the excruciating prejudice of the world around her, the heart of the film belongs to a character and a performer who presents epitome of grace and dignified stoicism.
In the wider context of the film’s universe, the audience come to understand that the spite and disgust thrown at Marina by several key antagonists in the narrative isn’t just an occurrence caused by Orlando’s death, but simply the day to day life that she has to contend with in an unenlightened society. This realisation is both heartbreaking and triumphant at the same time. Heartbreaking to see how people can show such contempt for things that they do not necessarily understand, yet triumphant in the sense that Marina Vidal is very much the hero of this tale, rising above the prejudice of her surroundings to become a beacon of everything that is good in humanity. You want to hug her just as much as you want to applaud her bravery and determination in the face of bigotry, and if that’s not the key to great characterisation, I don’t know what is.
I realise that what I have written so far might make the film sound very serious and sombre. Serious, yes, but only sombre when it has to be. One of the best elements of A Fantastic Woman is that it possesses a striking feeling of hope and resilience, a constant sense throughout that the film and the audience is always, unfailingly on Marina’s side, flipping the perspective to showcase all of her tormentors and aggressors as the undesirable ‘other’. Difficult to watch at times, but necessary and rewarding viewing. The more stories like this that are told on a mass stage, the better.
Daniela Vega as Marina is an absolute revelation. With a strikingly beautiful face and a stoic intensity to rival the very best, Vega steals the show with effortless charisma and screen presence. The actress appears in pretty much every single frame of the picture, a responsibility that can’t be overlooked or underestimated. The captivating nature of her performance lends an air of mystery and grace to proceedings that keeps the film feeling enigmatic and inspiring even in its darkest and most upsetting moments. In what was admittedly a strong year of competition, I would not have been surprised to see Vega’s name amongst the Best Actress nominees. Simply sensational.
Overall, A Fantastic Woman is an absolute gem of a film, one that takes the very specific life struggles of a disenfranchised minority and treats them with such honesty and integrity that they feel instantly universal, a feat that is essential to helping society bridge these pointless gaps between one type of human understanding and another. Amidst the searing social and cultural tensions of the narrative, this is a story about the death of a loved one, and grieving, and coming to terms with loss, all themes that anyone in the world can connect with on some level. I don’t profess to have expert knowledge on the subject, but it’s one of few films I can recall featuring a trans character, that doesn’t focus its key plot points on the coming out or transitioning phases of their life. It marks a refreshing departure from some of the more common tropes associated with such a story, and opens up the audience to seeing stages of a person’s life that might not feel so different to their own after all. No doubt it will be afforded a longer release thanks to it’s deserved triumph at the Oscars. Quick, get it while it’s hot!