"A Song of the Self": Daniela Vega in "A Fantastic Woman"

in 29th Palm Springs International Film Festival

by Nathan Lee

Grief undoes the self. The experience of a great loss shakes out our equilibrium, unmooring us from the coordinates through which, and against which, we formulate our identities. When we grieve, we grieve ourselves as much as the one who is gone; the sensation of grief, its bone-deep bruise, is the mark of a sudden, shocking incompleteness – the reverberations of a psychic amputation. When a lover is gone, these disturbances strike deep into the body. A thousand daily points of contact, so taken for granted they feel hardwired into our lives, now leave only a memory, an ache. The lover’s touch marks the limit of who we are and opens us to the intimacy that melts with the other. When they’re gone, we are thrown back into ourselves to confront an old question in a new light: who am I?

“A Fantastic Woman” (Una mujer fantástica) opens with a few brief scenes that quickly establish the bond between Marina (Daniela Vega) and Orlando (Francisco Reyes). She’s a young waitress and aspiring singer; he owns a printing company and is some years her elder. It is her birthday; flowers and dinner are followed by lovemaking and gentle sleep. Orlando awakens in the night, mysteriously disturbed. They rush to the hospital where Orlando is pronounced dead from an aneurism. Stunned by the news, Marina can scarcely begin to acknowledge her shattering before she confronts the forces that would deny her wholeness from the start.

For Marina is a transgender woman, and the “fantastic” of the title signifies both her resilience and dignity and the view of those from whom Marina is a fantastic creature, a chimera, a monster. “I don’t know what I’m looking at,” sneers Orlando’s ex-wife; his son will be even more hostile. They too are shattered in grief, and make Marina and object of their hurt; we can only be less broken, they seem to say, than this duplicitous thing. Directed by Sebastián Leilo, who co-wrote the screenplay with Gonzalo Maza, “A Fantastic Woman” unfolds the process of this double depersonalization, exploring the landscape (and dreamscape) of Marina’s grief as she negotiates a transphobic culture. The film is remarkable for the clarity and focus of this thematic, and it traces the effect of the undone self without glib moralizing or easy indentitarian heroics.

The movie soars through Vega, whose performance is marvel of acutely controlled gestures and effects. Another actress, in another kind of film, would play the audience for sympathy and righteous indignation. Vega’s approach is more interiorized and withholding. She presents, throughout, a model of steely reserve and tough-minded resignation that is nevertheless suffused with tenderness, vulnerability, uncertainty. Some viewers have misread the performance as unmodulated or one-note, rather than a vibrant, fully controlled strategy that embodies the lifetime of harassment, indignity, and ignorance Marina has faced. Vega’s minimal performative surface produces maximum rhetorical effect; when she reacts to a phobic encounter with a dispassionate non-reaction, we can read an entire complex of emotions and decisions in her posture: how many such moments she has faced, resisted, overcome or succumbed to; the hard-won confidence of a woman assured of herself despite all who would doubt and tear down her being, and the long history of hurt that confidence required; the threat of pushing back too hard, in the wrong way, in the wrong moment, against the wrong person, whose hateful speech can so quickly turn to violence, whose fear of trans folk could so easily break down into violence and murder.  

The question the movie places before us again and again is not “How will Marina react to those who deny her claim to love and personhood?”, but rather “How does one negotiate forces of depersonalization?” If this question appears more general, even universal, it only gains traction through the lived specificity of Marina’s life. The undone self in “A Fantastic Woman” is an overdetermined problem, and its resolution does not provide an answer but only the emergence of new terms for question: who am I? Marina exits the film having posed this question in her own way, for it is a question that belongs only to her, and she makes it sing.