A Fantastic Woman ★★

[4]

A Fantastic Woman, the earlier of two films released this year by the suddenly prolific Sebastiàn Lelio, is confusing on a number of fronts. First, the title: it implies unbridled praise for its protagonist Marina (Daniela Vega), a bel canto singer who makes ends meet by performing in a Santiago nightclub and waiting tables by day. Near the start of the film, Marina's longterm partner Orlando (Francisco Reyes) dies of a cardiac episode, and she is left to try and cope with the loss while doing battle with Orlando's family, most of whom have never accepted Marina, who is transgender, or Orlando's relationship with her.

At the end of a purely perfunctory meeting with Orlando's ex-wife Sonia (Alice Küppenheim) -- dropping off car keys, making plans for the apartment, etc. -- Sonia gives Marina a cruel, out-of-nowhere dressing down. "Do you know what I see?" she asks. "You are a chimera," telling Marina in essence that she, her womanhood, and her entire identity are dreamlike, nonexistent, or . . . fantastic. Whose side is this film on, anyway?

This is the persistent question, since A Fantastic Woman operates by all the standard grammar that signifies that Marina is our heroine. She is always the focus of the film's action, and Lelio provides her space for a few small wins along the way -- particularly at the end, when she gets to spend a few final moments with Orlando's body despite the fact that the family had forcibly barred her from the wake and the memorial service.

But throughout the film, Marina is subjected to all manner of abuse, from sidelong glances by a police officer at the hospital who insists on calling Marina by her dead name -- doing so with the particular relish of a bully with the full force of institutional power behind him -- to being subjected to a fully nude photographic evidence set (by a male police photographer), Lelio's camera showing us almost all of Vega's naked body in the process. And this is to say nothing of the verbal and physical abuse Marina is subjected to by Orlando's wife, son (Nicolás Saavedra), and his friends.

There's something rotten at the heart of A Fantastic Woman, and it has to do with a kind of double-identification the film allows for its audience. Cis audiences are essentially let off the hook for transphobia, because the outward premises of the film are about Marina, her resilience, and the unfair way the world treats her. (And if you happen to be a trans viewer, you're out of luck. There's no indication that this film ever actually had you in mind.) We are essentially ratified by the film as being progressive enough to "accept" her. How broad-minded of "us."

But viewers also get to watch a transgender person subjected to every conceivable humiliation short of outright rape. A Fantastic Woman does not take into account the fact that witnessing these acts onscreen allows for, if not implicitly encourages, identification with the aggressor. This is because we live in a world where transphobia is the default setting, a moral defect to be actively unlearned.

Cinema has various analytical techniques for disrupting those ugly tendencies. (Why not, for example, bleep out the dead name, to signify that a character who uses it is doing something obscene, something with which the film itself will not participate?) But Lelio, presumably under the guise of melodrama (which itself had many techniques to depict women's suffering without encouraging pleasure in it), chooses to take the side of the oppressors, by showing Marina as incomplete and pathetic.

Yes, the film ends on a triumphant moment -- her lovely vocal performance. But aren't our lives -- trans lives included -- actually full of ups and downs? Why must Marina suffer degradation in order to earn a final moment of respect? I think this is more for a particular audience -- one that is presumed to have no concept of trans lives, no contact with trans individuals, and for whom Marina is a spectacle above all else -- than it is even for the basic coherence of character we'd expect from an average piece of semi-realist cinema.

This imagined viewer gets to absorb, and on some level participate in, anti-trans violence, and gets redeemed at the end. You're good. You're liberal. You head back to your cars. It's over.