As the words “A Fantastic Woman” appear on the screen we are looking, somewhat jarringly, at a man’s body. For several minutes we follow middle aged Orlando as he goes about his business in Santiago, getting a massage, heading back to work, then out to meet his lover, Marina, who he is taking out for her birthday. Their relationship is easy and comfortable, but also passionate.
Then, in the middle of the night, Orlando suffers an aneurysm and Marina rushes him to hospital. As soon as this crisis hits Marina loses control over her life. Marina is a trans woman who faces the double ordeal of first her partner dying and then the barrage of small and large insults, assaults, misconceptions and humiliations she must deal with from the authorities and Orlando’s family.
The doctor assumes she is a sex worker and possibly responsible for Orlando’s death. When she gives her name as Marina he says, “But surely that’s a nickname?”, demanding to see her ID card, which still bears her old name.
A police officer claims to understand Marina because she’s “dealt with many people like you on the streets for 25 years”. But Marina is a waitress and a professional singer.
Orlando’s ex-wife demands the car back and warns Marina to vacate the flat she shared with him, before banning her from the funeral. When they finally meet she shows her disgust at Marina and Orlando’s relationship — “I don’t know what you are.”
Orlando’s grown up son physically intimidates Marina in her home and later colludes with friends to kidnap and assault her.
A Fantastic Woman gives the viewer a sense of what it is like to face every day knowing that a large proportion of the population has no respect for your bodily autonomy; that you will be at the mercy of the authorities, who can impose all manner of indignities upon trans people — like the strip examination the police insist Marina submit to.
Trans actor and singer Daniela Vega portrays Marina with a huge amount of sensitivity. You can feel her every flinch at being misgendered, or having to deal with the same bigoted questions again and again. The director has said that everything the bigots shout at Marina, Daniela has had shouted at her.
But we also see the love Marina shared with Orlando, the supportive relationship she has with her sister and her co-worker, and the trust she has developed over years with her singing coach. There are moments of fantasy portraying Marina’s emotional turmoil and her resilience, and there are moments of personal triumph.
Seeing the complete disregard with which some of the characters treat Marina is heartbreaking.
As the director has said of the process of working through Marina’s story, “At first I felt I could understand that they didn’t understand, but after dealing with the problem, I didn’t understand how people remained so troubled by her presence. Why is [Orlando’s] dog the only one that doesn’t have a problem? Can’t people be more like dogs?” Indeed.