Sebastián Lelio's A Fantastic Woman is a melancholy and philosophical portrait of a transgender woman's fight to mourn her partner's death with dignity. At the beginning of the film, we meet Marina (Daniela Vega) and Orlando (Francisco Reyes), a happy May-December couple living in a posh apartment in Santiago, Chile. When Orlando suddenly dies, Marina is forced into various confrontations with her partner's family as well as with the state, which does not recognize Marina's gender, much less her right to be treated as her lover's kin. Throughout the film, Marina's struggle to partake in the smallest tokens of mourning, like attending Orlando's funeral, becomes a fight for existence itself.
Through a succession of the smallest aggressions and the most debasing indignities, we witness Marina's repeated assertions of her personhood. With cinematographer Benjamín Echazarreta's camera often trained on the protagonist's face, the film is a study in Vega's superb expressiveness. Her face registers exquisite sensitivity through the blankness of traumatic shock while also transmitting a palpable warmth and wit.
Rapidly displaced from her formerly protected life, Marina is pushed further and further to the margins of the city. Long tracking shots capture her lanky form walking through immense terrain, from glittering urban skyscrapers to graffiti-strewn peripheral neighborhoods, and we notice how starkly urban space indicates who is included and who is excluded, who is normal and who is abnormal, who gets to be a citizen and who does not.
In the ugly attacks that Marina withstands, the film also reminds us that Chile's history of fascism, not fully in the past, still finds expression in patriarchal rage against so-called aberrant gender expressions. The desire to torture, punish, and control perceived deviants' movements lives on in the most intimate aspects of family life and the most quotidian routines of bureaucrats and law enforcement.
Despite the film's unflinching portrayal of the realities of transgender life in Chile, it's no miserabilist paean to suffering. The delicate violin score and crisp cinematography underscore Marina's unyielding will to live. If one of the defining tropes of the twentieth-century art film was a glamorous, alienated woman walking across war-ruined European metropoles, Marina might be the defining figure of the twenty-first century: a woman fiercely holding on to her personhood when multinational capital has determined humans on the global periphery to be basically disposable.