A Fantastic Woman lacks the courage to embrace full melodrama, and eventually all of its reflections highlight what a flat surface the film is.
Sebastián Leilo’s A Fantastic Woman opens as an extended ellipsis, allowing its characters to gradually coalesce into being. We see Orlando (Francisco Reyes), an older gentleman, enter a café one night as a young woman, Marina (Daniela Vega), croons with the house band. Staring wistfully at Marina, who beckons at him with mild flirtation while swaying to the music, Orlando gives no impression of a deeper connection than mere fondness, at least until Marina gets off and he takes her out for her birthday. As the evening of dining and dancing wears on, we intuit more and more of the couple’s tenderness toward each other, how Marina’s casual flirtiness is complemented by her softly spoken gratitude to Orlando, whose own own benign ogling from earlier is now shaded with immense kindness. Leilo moves through these early interactions at a stately pace, though he occasionally gives in to the swells of affection between the two characters and lurches into shots of florid color and swooning, musical movement. It’s reserved but passionate, hinting at a shared history with only a few lines of dialogue.
The sam approach holds when things go horribly wrong for the couple as well. Back at their apartment, Orlando suddenly collapses, even taking a fall down some stairs before Marina can get him into a car and drive to the hospital, where her lover is pronounced dead of an aneurysm. The camera remains at a distance from Marina, all the better to let her unspoken confusion and grief emanate off her in waves, but no less pertinent are the strange interactions she has with nurses and doctors. Instead of offering comfort or information, the staff reacts to Marina with something like suspicion: a nurse hands her Orlando’s personal effects with slight reluctance, and when a doctor asks Marina for her name, he looks confused and asks if that’s her nickname. On the phone with one of Orlando’s relatives, Marina sounds less mournful than nervous, and no sooner does she hang up than she attempts to leave the area, only to be stopped by a cop who drags her back into the hospital, and his scoffing attitude toward her name and his scrutiny of the name actually printed on her I.D. let slip why Marina has been facing such intense scrutiny: she is a transwoman.
For the rest of the film, Marina must contend with invasive investigators who suspect foul play in Orlando’s death, doctors who treat her as a medical conundrum, and members of Orlando’s family who treat her as reputation-wrecking scum and attempt to wrench everything that she shared with Orlando out of her hands, even the couple’s dog. Vega’s performance is one of muted outrage as Marina deals with the incessant depredations of her privacy and grief. Marina suffers the insults heaped upon her without raising her voice, but the mildly tremulous tone in her voice speaks to the intense effort to stay calm when dealing with others, knowing that the price of a potential outburst would be only more scrutiny and harassment. In nearly every conversation, Marina cannot help but let her eyes dart around, a tactic to both avoid the callous stares of those judging her and to scan the area for possible paths of escape. Marina’s visible fear makes her resolve all the more impressive, an act of constant resistance disguised as passivity.
Yet Vega suggests depths to Marina that the film never seeks to divulge, instead restricting Marina to an exclusively reactive agent in her own story. Mostly, this takes the form of her silent endurance of the hostility of the family, which occasionally lapses into actual violence with scenes that reduce Marina to a terrified victim. This makes Marina the spectator of her own story, sitting in the passenger seat as she absorbs endless abuse and never gets to vent the personality so visible beneath her veneer of calm. Despite spending nearly two hours with the woman, we learn next to nothing about her other than her gender identity. Marina exists as an emblem, an iconographic character who exhibits no flaws suggesting complex humanity and instead lines up dutifully for punishment from a cruel world aligned entirely against her.
At times, the film hints at a deeper engagement with a wider range of discomforted responses to Marina in nominally more progressive figures, such as Antonia (Amparo Noguera), the sex crimes detective who investigates Marina, or Gabo (Luis Gnecco), Orlando’s meek brother. Antonia pretends to sympathize with Marina but also refuses to believe that she would be with the much older Orlando if not performing sex work, and she subjects the woman to humiliating full body exams which she also watches. Gabo, meanwhile, attempts to mollify Marina, but under his ostensible kindness is a desire not to rock the boat with his brother’s family, and he noticeably freezes any time Marina makes physical contact with him. Such interactions leave much more room for Marina to make her own mark, pointedly calling attention to the hypocrisy of their empty liberalism, and they suggest a movie with much more room to explore. Instead, we get brief impressionistic forays into sultry color and dance-like movement to hint at an inner life, these illustrations of imagined freedom no greater an insight into the protagonist than her endless suffering. The recurring use of mirror imagery throughout the film frequently calls to mind Rainer Werner Fassbinder’s use of such metaphors to externalize his own characters’ unresolved identities. But A Fantastic Woman lacks the courage to embrace full melodrama, and eventually all of its reflections highlight what a flat surface the film is.