Stephen Borunda/Special to The Santiago Times
Drawing widely from sources ranging from David Lynch’s film The Elephant Man to the ideas of W. E. B. Du Bois, Sebastián Lelio’s most recent film Una Mujer Fantástica (A Fantastic Woman) certainly has the intellectual underpinnings of a fine film. The film centers on a transgender heroine named Marina (played by Daniela Vega) and the aftermath of when her lover Orlando (Francisco Reyes) dies unexpectedly. What begins as a romantic film in which the lovers are planning their future together quickly morphs into an examination of identity, loss, and how those considered “outsiders” are not permitted to naturally deal with both.
Immediately, Marina becomes the lead suspect in a police investigation into Orlando’s death. The police begin to probe into whether Marina and Orlando had a physical altercation before Orlando’s passing – the reality is that Orlando was nauseous and fell down a flight of stairs. But, Marina’s troubles don’t end there, as she too becomes the scourge of Orlando’s family. His family cannot understand how he fell in love with Marina; they constantly treat her as a thing that Orlando only loved because of how of his illness “must have” degraded his soundness of mind. Horrified by their relationship, Orlando’s ex-wife even refuses to allow Marina to attend the viewing.
The maltreatment of Marina shows the difficulty that transgendered individuals face in a society that constantly seeks to define them, regardless of how these people view themselves. Orlando’s son attempts to intimidate Marina – both physically and verbally. The female police detective handling Marina’s case insists on seeing Marina’s sex organ during a doctor’s examination. In addition to these moments in the formal narrative, Lelio also effectively utilizes dream sequences and close-ups. One dream sequence features Marina being hopelessly repelled by the wind as she walks down the street. Here, we understand that Marina seeks to simply exist as a normal person yet society will not even allow that. Later, near the film’s denouement, Orlando’s son and his friends kidnap Marina after she does attend Orlando’s viewing. They gag Marina with tape and, as a result, her face – in close-up – overtly resembles the face of Joseph Merrick from Lynch’s 1980 classic The Elephant Man.
Such moments help spectators to grasp the Du Boisian ideas of “double consciousness” that Lelio explores. While Du Bois spoke of how African Americans are compelled to see themselves through the eyes of a racist society, so too is Marina regularly forced to see herself as some sort of monster – instead of a person –because of society’s treatment of transgender individuals.
Despite these obstacles, Marina refuses to falter and she shows her worthiness of the title that the film assigns to her. Even after the horrific treatment that she receives at the hands of Orlando’s family, Marina never doubts her love for Orlando and his love for her. His ghost (which appears sporadically throughout the film in phantasmagorical scenes) silently and delicately guides Marina throughout her journey. Eventually, something changes in Marina and the audience becomes convinced that she will persevere and continue to define herself as she, not society, wishes. Marina’s occupation as an artist and opera singer further strengthen this point.
Una Mujer Fantástica certainly leaves spectators with a tremendous amount of information to process about society and its treatment of individuals in the transgender community. But, despite a fascinating plot catalyst, interesting semiology, fine camerawork, and a strong moral direction, Lelio’s film does seem to be lacking an emotional core. While Vega does a remarkable job as the lead, her acting is very subtle – perhaps to a fault. Even in close-up, moments that should deeply move us instead leave us wanting more. But, perhaps the fault here does not lie with Vega but the way in which the film does seem more interested in simply presenting ideas than deeply exploring them. We move rapidly within a nexus of ideas about social transformation, “otherness,” and the subjectivity of gender with less connecting thread than may have been needed in a film that does run under two hours. Thus, while it is a sagacious one, this film may not have the emotional impact that many would expect. However, Lelio’s ambition and Vega’s obvious talent do make this film one worth viewing and digesting.
Una Mujer Fantástica is currently screening in select theaters across Santiago.
The film was selected as the Chilean entry for the Best Foreign Language Film at the 90th Academy Awards.