Mirrors abound in “A Fantastic Woman,” the new Spanish-language drama from filmmaker Sebastián Lelio.
And, given the film’s subject matter, their recurring appearance as a visual motif is not all that surprising. This is, after all, a film about a transgender woman and her life struggles, and cinematic auteurs love nothing more than to fixate on transgender bodies without lending much agency to the characters themselves.
Moreover, the movie revels in violent hate acts, willfully condemning them as if doing so is progressive or groundbreaking in the slightest while more-or-less dismissing the subtly and casually dehumanizing microaggressions transgender people face on a daily basis.
It is not so much empathetic as it is congratulatory, and it lacks the capacity to say anything meaningful about transgender experiences or to investigate the nuances of institutionalized transphobia.
“A Fantastic Woman” tells the heart-wrenching story of Marina, a transgender woman struggling to cope with a multitude of emotional traumas, namely the death of her much older boyfriend, Orlando, and the harassment she faces from his family members as she tries to process this loss.
In all regards, “A Fantastic Woman” feels like a tremendously important film. First and foremost, it is the first notable film in recent memory to tell the story of a transgender woman and actually have the decency to cast a transgender actress to play the part.
I have no doubt that to hundreds of thousands of people worldwide, the experience of beholding such a film will be powerful, even cathartic.
It is unfortunate, then, that the rest of the film amounts to little more than an exercise in ally cinema, the sort of filmmaking tailored not for minorities but to congratulate self-labelled ally majorities.
It hyperbolizes and sterilizes the very real abuse that transgender people are subjected to on a daily basis, purporting to care but mostly just catering itself to heterosexual and cisgender audiences by not acknowledging the culpability of society as a whole.
One of the film’s most putrid, vile images comes towards the end. Naturally, it involves a mirror. The shot frames Marina’s nude body in sharp focus. A mirror sits in her lap, obscuring her genitals and in it we see her face reflected.
On a surface level, it seems meaningful, even poignant — an acknowledgement of identity over physicality, a proclamation of respect for a character who has endured nothing but violence and disrespect throughout the course of the film thus far.
It also represents a frustrating inability by Lelio to cope with transgender identities as anything more than a conundrum. It is one of innumerable shots of Marina beholding herself littered throughout the film like garbage spilling from a dumpster, as if to imbue it with some semblance of deeper meaning.
But really, it is just objectifying. Lelio compulsively calls attention to the fact that Marina is transgender in nearly every scene of the film. His camera lingers on her body in uncomfortable ways, especially in nude scenes. The gazes of other characters enforce a feeling of otherness.
In one particularly alarming scene, she pretends to be a man. The point, of course, is that she can do this because she’s transgender. It is sickening.
In another sequence, she listens to a song in her car. “You make me feel… like a natural woman,” the singer on the radio wails. The message is clear. To many, I am sure, it is outright hurtful. Marina, in the film’s eyes, is not a “natural woman.”
The movie recognizes her more as an object to project ideas and ethical quandaries onto than an actual character in the film. She is a maltreated plot device more than a character, and for a film whose titular “Fantastic Woman” she is meant to be, that is especially disappointing.
I cannot imagine transgender people watching “A Fantastic Woman” and feeling anything but disturbed. Though it casts a transgender person in its lead role, it does not have the decency to extend her much agency, or the wit to liberate her from depictions of intense torment.
Where the film shines are its opening twenty minutes. As we are introduced to Marina, Orlando and their life together, Lelio’s filmmaking is quietly sublime. Their glances are loving, furtive; of the sort that speak millions of words nonverbally and in the span of milliseconds.
His camera moves quietly, gently through immaculately lit sets, framing fleeting moments of joy and quiet exchanges as substantive. It is a beautiful and, admittedly, affecting establishment of their relationship, which in turn develops the film’s emotional stakes.
While borderline fetishistic, "A Fantastic Woman" is always alarmingly hyperfocused on abuse and transphobic violence, rendering it a mostly disgraceful piece of cinema. Lelio's framing of Marina’s pain as largely derived from her loss remains affecting because of how beautifully the film opens.
It is a shame to see the film derail itself so disastrously after such an elegant opening sequence. It’s also tremendously disappointing that the movie squanders both the talent of its star and the potential of her casting to create a meaningful film for transgender audiences.
Ultimately, “A Fantastic Woman” is a disgraceful and consistently upsetting piece of queer cinema. Outwardly, it masquerades as progressive, but it feels all too willing to congratulate majority communities for what amounts to basic human decency, and not willing enough to examine the difficult nuance that defines its preoccupations.
Artistically, most of Lelio’s filmmaking feels rote. Narratively, it is meandering and dull. Its only memorable facets are the ugliness roiling and bubbling beneath its surface.
Maybe we would do better just to forget it entirely.
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