Directed by: Sebastián Lelio Written by: Lelio and Gonzalo Maza
How do you draw the line between politics and art? It’s not an easy question to answer, and in most cases its probably best left unaddressed. Until humans learn to fully articulate our sensory experiences it is a question we should simply explore through our instincts. A work is art when it captures us for what it is and not just what it saying.
Why do I ask this question? Because its gets at what is fantastic about A Fantastic Woman. The film tells the story of Marina (Daniela Vega) an opera-singing transwoman waitress whose partner Orlando (Franciso Reyes)’s family members become increasingly overt in their displays of violent transphobia. The film is not subtle in its politics. It shines a light on a number of issues including misgendering, the indignities transpeople face when asked to provide government ID, the objectification of transbodies and distrust between trans* communities and the police. The film is sufficiently subtle in exploring different manifestations of transphobia. Sometimes it’s the aggressive queries of manchildren; sometimes it’s the saviourism of establishment feminists; and sometimes it’s the stands of religious moralists.
The film is also careful, however, to show that a non-transphobic world is possible. In addition to being close to her sister (Antonia Zegers) Marina also has a friend in Orlando’s brother Gabo (Luis Gnecco), despite Gabo (like Orlando) looking the part of an establishment white cisman. While his presence is more subtle, its not much of a stretch to notice that Gabo’s presence in the film is not unlike that of Juan’s (Mahershala Ali’s character) in Moonlight.
So perhaps a Fantastic Woman’s accomplishment is that it’s the rare work that manages to be blatant with its politics without compromising its artistic merits. This is an accomplishment that rests on the film’s good pacing, its memorable characters and occasional ventures into magical realism. That said, perhaps there’s more to the film than meets the eye.
The defining act of transphobic marginalization in A Fantastic Woman is that a number of characters combine to prevent a transwoman from expressing her sadness. It is perhaps this characteristic that makes the pain Marina suffers so indignifying, her tormentors so frustrating and her wanderings so captivating. Marina is a freedom fighter, yet in her pursuit of freedom, the best prize she can take home is a dusky, cobweb covered trophy.
A Fantastic Woman’s melancholy direction doesn’t simply define Marina, but her tormentors as well. The film is set up so that we can believe (if not with certainty) that the transphobia hurled at Marina is itself motivated by grief. Perhaps it is long suppressed bigotry finally seeing the light, or perhaps it is brand-new feelings born from the circumstances. This quality gives the film both political and artistic depth. Politically, it represents the idea of peoples turning to fascism in hard times: of appeasing their sorrows by seeking to assert power over those even more marginalized then themselves. Artistically it gives audiences just a pinch of cognitive dissonance. While it is fairly clear we are not supposed to root for Marina’s tormentors, the fact that they have genuine sorrows, and cite their sorrows to justify their bullying of Marina just makes it the slightest bit uncomfortable to be fully against them (a discomfort we can believe Marina is bothered by as well).
It’s probably true that everything is “political.” It’s also true that “the political” need not just be about politics. A Fantastic Woman is such a work, and a model one at that; it speaks to the ills of this time, but also creates a melancholy interpersonal dynamic that transcends its context.