‘A Fantastic Woman’ depicts grief and gender identity in an unforgiving world

Marina Vidal (Daniela Vega) is standing outside an emergency room at the hospital, watching through a pale, square window as doctors struggle to resuscitate her boyfriend, Orlando (Francisco Reyes). Hours earlier, Marina and Orlando had been celebrating her birthday over dinner, their smiles as radiant as the neon glow of red, orange and purple-colored lights that surround them. In this palette, in this darkened hue, we see Marina and Orlando as wholly themselves—we get the impression that, although they are often not, in this moment, they are free.

But the lights shatter. The smiles are broken. We, along with Marina, are told that Orlando has died as result of an aneurysm. From this point on, Marina will face a barrage of seemingly insurmountable challenges, grievances and unsolicited insults as she attempts to mourn the sudden loss of Orlando. Disturbed and entirely not her own, Marina’s grieving process becomes less sacred than it would be for most significant others due to the sheer fact that she is transgender. Through Marina’s struggles and triumphs, “A Fantastic Woman” reveals itself to be a work of deep storytelling and a fable of humanity’s incapacity for compassion and tendency toward hatred—and how easy it is to fall in between.

The main themes in “A Fantastic Woman” are explicated through Marina’s dealings with Orlando’s close friends and family members following his death. She is pushed into a wall by his son, Bruno, (Nicolas Saavedra), and told that the very sight of her is disgusting by his ex-wife, Sonia (Aline Kuppenheim). Marina isn’t afraid to hold her own against her instigators, but still, she is rarely in control of the situation—always the reactor to the aggressor, looming on the outskirts, constantly pushed away, and when she is pulled in, it’s never of her own accord.

Marina is also forced to comply with police demands after Orlando’s autopsy reveals suspicious results. She participates in a series of humiliating body identification sessions and is subjected to lines of questioning wherein she must admit that she was not born a woman. Much of the police’s suspicion also stems from the fact that Marina fled the hospital shortly after Orlando’s death without notifying anyone, likely out of fear for how she would be treated, or just the fear of a situation in which she, like many, could never have imagined.

Marina, as well as the hospital officials and police officers, are well aware that her gender identity, sadly, will be given more emphasis and importance in the death of Orlando than if she had been a cis woman.

“A Fantastic Woman” is notable for its depiction of gender identity, but also its representation of human identity. Early in the film, Marina is asked to display an ID by a police officer, and when she is reluctant to do so, we assume it’s because her ID lists her birth gender. When a police officer shows up at Marina’s restaurant to ask her some questions, it is Marina who doesn’t hesitate to ask the officer for her ID to prove that the undercover woman is indeed an officer. Even Orlando’s family stumbles over their own supposed roles and familial duties, with Sonia first referring to herself as his wife, then correcting herself, mumbling nervously, ex-wife. When Marina meets with her singing instructor for lessons, he chastises her for not embracing her identity as a true “singer,” instead spending her time fronting nightclub salsa and mambo bands. Everyone’s identity is questioned, their supposed descriptors and labels written in washable ink.

But it’s more of a  visual metaphor that succeeds as the film’s best representation of an identity in struggle. Late in the film, Marina walks outside on a bright day when, suddenly, two men happen to walk by, carrying a large mirror in front of her. As Marina approaches the mirror, it bends back and forth with the wind, obscuring her appearance and figure, never quite capturing an accurate depiction. She is not afraid to live as herself at night or in broad daylight, yet it seems everything and everyone—even her own reflection—refuses to acknowledge her for who she is.

Sebastian Lelio’s visceral and colorful direction is really the soul of “A Fantastic Woman.” Most of the film is shot conventionally, using standard framing and positioning techniques, experimenting in only rare cases, such as Maria’s encounter with the mirror. Occasionally, when Orlando’s figure reappears, as a figment of Marina’s wandering mind, Lelio shifts the lighting, employing the same hues of red, orange and purple, from when the couple was together and happy. Lelio relies on color and mood more than words and conflicts to tell Marina’s story. Even without the Spanish subtitles, through Lelio’s direction, we always know how to feel.

The music also works to convey a strong sense of story. Composed by Matthew Herbert, the film’s score includes frequent use of the flute in short bursts, playing around five or six notes at a time. Normally an instrument associated with grace and serenity, the flute here feels unfinished and uncertain, reflecting Marina’s life in the wake of Orlando’s death.

At the conclusion of “A Fantastic Woman,” Marina shares the stage with her music instructor on piano and three other musicians, ready to deliver a performance of “Ombra mai fu,” a melody from the George Frideric Handel opera Serse. Marina stuns with her immaculate, high-pitched voice. Although we’ve already heard her sing in earlier parts of the film, this time is no less—if not more—encapsulating.

While her voice, which now seems to hit impossibly high notes, seems like a revalation, so is the song. In “Ombra mai fu,” Marina sings a melody intended for a soprano castrato, a male singer who was historically castrated before reaching sexual maturity. Although her genitalia is never shown in the film, it is heavily referenced, as when she stares down at a mirror placed on her own crotch, and yet, only sees her own face staring back at her. The song’s lyrics,“May thunder, lightning, and storms never disturb your dear peace / nor may you by blowing winds be profaned,” are cleverly interspersed throughout the film. In one scene in particular, Marina is nearly knocked onto the pavement by a massive gust of wind.  

But the final lyrics, “Never was a shade of any plant dearer and more lovely, or more sweet,” speak more truth to Marina’s character than any of the film’s prior symbolism. We find ourselves wondering what Marina’s life was like before now, sometimes desperately hoping for an extended monologue where she’ll delve into her struggles as a woman, how cruel society has treated her, or just anything that might be on her mind. Perhaps that’s the film’s biggest flaw, never quite giving us a glimpse of who Marina really is beyond this quarrel. But it’s also part of the movie’s triumph, a steady meditation on a resilient character who is resilient, authentic and uncompromisingly, fantastic.