Be forewarned: A Fantastic Woman is an intense experience. It isn’t a gruesomely violent film or an especially shocking one, particularly if you are familiar with the experiences which it depicts, but through those depictions, you will catch a glimpse of a hard life lived at one of its lowest points. This is a film that pulls no punches on the reality of its protagonist and, by extension, the realities of people like her. This is a film about isolation and bereavement, but it’s also a story about forging strength from nothing but resolve and the will to keep going. This is a film about power, both in how it is denied certain people and in how those people need to cobble together their own from whatever scraps are available to them. And while that strength may lead to personal victories, those victories will always be bittersweet for the necessity of having had to be struggled for in the first place.
A Fantastic Woman opens on a happy couple, Orlando (Francisco Reyes) and Marina (Daniela Vega), celebrating Marina’s birthday before going back to their apartment for a more intimate celebration. Later that night, Orlando wakes up feeling unwell, so Marina takes him to the hospital where he dies of an aneurysm. Mourning the loss of her boyfriend, Marina calls Orlando’s family so that they may make arrangements for his funeral, but soon after Marina is accosted by both police and Orlando’s family for being a suspicious element in Orlando’s life.
It’s in this moment that the film makes explicit Marina’s status as a transgender woman, which is a piece of information wholly unnecessary to understanding Marina’s and Orlando’s love for one another but entirely necessary for understanding the scrutiny she faces after Orlando’s death. Other characters immediately express discomfort around Marina based solely on her transgender identity, sometimes hiding unintentional or veiled insults behind formalistic compassion or concern, other times coming out as directly hostile to Marina for simply existing. She is variously assumed to be Orlando’s prostitute, a victim of domestic violence, a perpetrator of domestic violence, a perversion, a freak, a crossdresser, and a gay man, which are all labels used to either delegitimize her relationship with Orlando or her identity as a woman. She is the victim of being called by the wrong pronouns, being called by the wrong name, threats, and physical violence, all while being accused of selfishly inserting herself into the lives of a grieving family who bears no sympathy for her own grief.
If director Sebastián Lelio were only interested in portraying the struggles faced by transgender women on a daily basis, though, there wouldn’t be much of a movie, only a series of heartbreaking vignettes. No, what Lelio places on full display is Marina’s strength in persevering against those who at best wish her to disappear, and at worse want her to die for the sin of her existence. Daniela Vega delivers a powerhouse performance undoubtedly informed by the struggles that she and nearly every other transgender woman face daily, demonstrating that those daily indignities have hardened Marina against even her own grief when the one person who truly understood her suddenly vanished from this mortal coil. Marina is almost entirely without a support system, the closest thing to it being a sister whose husband persistently makes Marina feel unwelcome, so much of the film is spent watching Marina trying to claim normalcy without anyone backing her up. And yet Marina is steadfast and determined not only to claim her basic right to say goodbye to the man she loves, but to survive the abuse that only becomes amplified the more she fights for that visibility. In the silent moment when that necessary hardness cracks, the entire emotional weight of the film comes crashing down from a single movement of Daniela Vega’s face.
Lelio isn’t without his moments of obtuse symbolism—a rendition of Aretha Franklin’s “(You Make Me Feel Like) A Natural Woman” on the radio feels almost like parody in its bluntness—but his film shines as a struggle for basic human catharsis. Merely by the circumstances of her birth and the society that ostracizes her for it, Marina is denied the supports and access necessary to grieve her partner as any other woman would be able to. These barriers are not only expected but normal, enhanced only by the directness with which she is confronted and the gravity that the trauma of the event has impressed upon her. A Fantastic Woman finds its resolution in fighting for the right to grieve, making for a bittersweet arc when one considers that save for one biological difference Marina would have never needed to fight at all. What a powerful, heartbreaking, empowering experience.