In my experience films that explore death and grief often move audiences to reflect on preciousness of every second they have with their loved ones. “How do you continue to live after losing your beloved?” my friend asked after just seeing David Lowery’s A Ghost Story. Una Mujer Fantástica (A Fantastic Woman) similarly explores the twilight between the death of a lover and continuing on with life, except the film’s protagonist flips the question: “How do you continue to live after losing someone who loved you?”
By day Marina Vidal is a waitress for a low-end restaurant; by night she shines as a nightclub singer where she is frequently visited by her lover Orlando. After finding Orlando in a cold sweat at the edge of their bed one night, Marina rushes him to the nearest hospital only to lose him a few hours later. Oddly, Marina’s distress and sadness only begins to surface when it comes time to notify Orlando’s family about his passing. In the scenes that follow this tragic beginning to the film, audiences will realize that Marina’s deeper struggle will be living in a cruel, lonely world that dehumanizes and ostracizes her for being trans. Marina goes from being the center of another human’s universe to being despised to the periphery of everyone else’s. Despite the monstrous hate that assaults Marina, she chooses to resist it and place herself in the center of society even if others won’t allow it.
According to the Merriam-Webster dictionary, the term fantastic has two general denotations. It can refer to that which belongs to world of fantasy and imaginations, that which is fabricated. It can also refer to that which stands out among others due to their/its superlative qualities. Una Mujer Fantátstica focuses primarily Marina’s struggle against those who would use “fantastic woman” in the former sense and her journey towards being seen (and feeling like) that latter. As the audience we aren’t given the backstory to any character, not even the protagonist. Besides a few familiar buildings and rooms, the audience is given no sense of place (unless you’re familiar with Chile). Most of the film concentrates on Marina’s struggle and how others perceive her.
Formally speaking, this is a bold move on the filmmakers’ part because they risk losing their viewers by focusing on one facet of the protagonist and choosing not to add dimension to anything else. However, the filmmakers make multiple stylistic choices that save Una Mujer from feeling like flat, brazen propaganda. In every scene where Marina is confronted by people who are disgusted by or afraid of her, the actors are positioned and the shots are composed in such a way that accentuates Marina’s isolation. In these cases a group of people will inundate a medium shot that is followed by a close up of just Marina with an empty background. When Marina is brought to the police department, she is gawked at and humiliated by people who should ensure her safety. When she is at Orlando’s funeral, most of the family erupts from the pews to shoo her away like an unwanted pest.
The cinematographer does not shy away from sets and angles that make lighting the subject impossible. The audience is taken into the strobe lights of bustling nightclubs and the kaleidoscopic colors of misty saunas, managing to capture Marina in clear focus. In these shots I realized how hard it is for Marina to be seen in her community. Despite unfavorable lighting and compositions set against her, Daniela Vega (who plays Marina) demonstrates fantastic presence. In shots that would dominate most actors, Daniela’s resolute gate and strong facial expressions command the attention of viewers even when there is so much around her to look at.
Towards the end of the film, we return to the concept of losing a loved one. How can you keep on living after losing someone you love? But Marina’s specific struggle causes us to reconfigure the question. While Marina lost a lover to the claws of death, she also lost someone who loved her. After experiencing the hate and fear that pushes against Marina, audiences will feel the poignancy of the flipped question about death and love. Death is not the subject of the film; being dead to society is. Una Mujer Fantástica interweaves human grief and sexuality in ways I haven’t seen on screen, while managing to dynamically portray the strength and bravery of the trans community. Una Mujer begins to answer the flipped question by suggesting such people must learn to love themselves, while challenging others to see the loveable humanity in people like Marina.