A Fantastic Woman / Eine fantastische Frau

Orlando is 57. His hair is mainly grey now and his clothes are conservative but elegant. He visits saunas for massages (no, not that kind), and night clubs where the singers look flirtatiously at him. In fact tonight, he’s taking one of the singers, Marina, to a Chinese restaurant to celebrate her birthday.

The restaurant staff sing Happy Birthday uneasily in Spanish (well, we are in Chile). Orlando hands a piece of paper on which he’s written a voucher for a dream holiday. He does have the original somewhere, but he mislaid it in the sauna. They return home, kiss and make love.

Orlando gets up unsteadily. Something’s not quite right. He stumbles towards the door. As Marina is getting the car keys, the light timer on the landing runs out. Orlando falls down the stairs, hitting his head. Although Marina manages to get him to hospital, he is whisked away from her, and shortly afterwards is pronounced dead from an aneurysm.

Marina knows that she can’t start grieving yet. She must move the car, contact Orlando’s family. For while she and Orlando may have been living together, she is a trans woman in an unwelcoming society. Sure enough, each member of Orlando’s family who she encounters – his brother, his son, his ex-wife – refer to her as “abnormal”, “a chimera” and ban her from the funeral. The dog, which Orlando gave to her, is taken away, and she must move out of their house as soon as possible.

People in authority show no more understanding, continually referring to her as “he” and asking for her real name. The “good” cop assumes first that she must be a prostitute, then that she must have been in an abusive relationship. This results in Marina being forced to undergo a demeaning procedure where she must strip and be photographed. The idea that Orlando and Marina may have just loved each other is just too astounding to conceive.

Most of the film follows Marina in her attempt to come to terms with her loss, and to attain some respect. Despite the humiliations which she is forced to endure – including being bundled in a car and having sellotape wrapped around her face, deforming her – she never reacts with anything less than a stoic dignity.

The film resists the temptation to eke out a happy ending, although it hints for a while that the holiday tickets will re-emerge and that Marina will be whisked away from all this. I’m glad that this didn’t happen, as it was much more important the Marina stayed and fought for her self-worth where she is rather than believing that she can run away from her problems.

The film uses a ready mix of realism, fantasy – especially as Marina keeps having visions of Orlando popping up in her daily life – and some scenes which work on both a real and metaphorical level. Marina marches into a headwind, struggling to move forward, and she sees herself reflected in various conveniently placed mirrors and other reflecting material.

These are not the struggles of a rich person who can buy themselves out of trouble – Marina has a shitty job as a waitress, and earns a little extra money singing. Being kicked out of her house does her real material damage. There is no fairy tale ending which rises her out of her misery, but she stares the misery defiantly in the face and refuses to let it grind her down.

Two final points. One: although this is a film set in Chile, it is not a Chilean film. I can anticipate some Western reviewers congratulating themselves that they don’t have to live in such a macho, transphobic society. Recent debates have hopefully disabused us of this notion. Second, props to director Sebastián Lelio for using a trans actor Daniela Vega, who is superb as Marina. You see, Hollywood, you don’t have to keep going back to the same straight white male stars.

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