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Chile's Oscar Submission: "A Fantastic Woman"

Sean McGovern reporting from the London Film Festival


There’s a scene early on in Pedro Almodóvar’s All About My Mother, when a young man laments the Spanish translation of All About Eve, to Eva al Desnudo. English subtitles tell us it’s “Eve Unveiled”. It also translates to “Eve Naked”. “All About Eve should be “Todo Sobre Eva”,” he says. “But that sounds odd,” replies his mother.


Sometimes a title, or a translation of a title, can make a difference. A Fantastic Woman, in English, basically means an amazing or brilliant woman. The Spanish adjective fantastica has the connotation of something unreal or imaginary, and in this film, writer-director Sebastián Lelio has created a heroine who is indeed fantastical: angelic in the eyes of her man, a threat to his toxic family, and the object of her director's vision... 


Daniela Vega, a transgender actress, plays the role of Marina, a deep eyed, soulful young woman, a singer, in a loving relationship with an older man, Orlando. When Orlando starts having chest pains, coupled with an unfortunate fall on the way to the hospital, Marina’s comforting idyll is gone and is replaced by the probing questions of the police. Additionally, Marina faces the cruelties of Orlando’s family who are determined to erase her from their father’s past and sanitize their memories of him so they may grieve.


A Fantastic Woman premiered in London as part of the London Film Festival’s Flare Gala (Flare being the excellent and very popular London LGBT Film Festival). It’s easy to understand why it was championed, rather than something more hyped like Call Me By Your NameA Fantastic Woman is a lusciously crafted film, with utter faith in Daniela Vega to carry the film, brilliantly championing a trans character played by a trans actress.  Vega deftly conveys deep pools of careful emotion even though her face only alludes to the fury and anguish beneath the surface. Marina, in her own process of grieving, is knifed by the insults of Sofia, Orlando’s estranged wife. Thinking her behaviour perfectly reasonable, Sofia denies Marina her own right to grieve, gawks at her and calls her a "chimera". Marina (and Vega, I’m sure) has lived experience of the torment afflicted by supposedly “good” citizens.

For all the worthy positives of A Fantastic Woman, Marina is an intriguing character but not a whole one. Lelio is fascinated with her body but frustratingly denies the audience a deeper understanding of Marina for the sake of intrigue. Her singing career, while presented at several points in the film, feels underdeveloped. She appears to have an enduring friendship with her grizzled vocal coach, but the extent of the depth and meaning of it is left unexplored. Her other friendships are presented incidentally, casually, almost as if to say, “Look at these ordinary parts of her life.” They leave you wanting more, dissatisfied with mere hints and mystery for mystery’s sake.

A Fantastic Woman is a film obsessed by ways of seeing: the preponderance for mirrors would be enough to make Douglas Sirk shout overkill. We ultimately see the this character squarely through the director’s eyes. In an interview with Screen Daily, when asked if he had done research before making the film, Lelio remarked: 

 Not really. I saw Boys Don’t Cry when I was young, and that made an impression but it was not at all in mind when I was making A Fantastic Woman. I was thinking more about directors and genres, like Louis Malle’s Lift To The Scaffold, than transgender films."

This led me to think that Lelio is more in love with the motif: a mysterious figure who walks a tightrope of permitted gender performance: “feminine” enough to suffer the cruelties of toxic macho society, yet “masculine” enough to fight back, punching the air with a boxer’s grace. To land a punch, however, she is not permitted to do. 

Lelio‘s fascination turns what hints at being a lively and anarchic film into one that merely makes a mainstream audience feel earnest pity for poor Marina. She deserves warmer emotions than that. Yes, Marina gets her moment of jumping on a car and standing up to Orlando’s loutish son, but only when she is at her wit’s end. She can’t fight society, she is only permitted to react to it. A Fantastic Woman is no doubt a credible and heartfelt work and Daniela Vega is both an actress and a star. Hopefully the film’s lasting legacy will be to pave the way for other filmmakers to tell better stories, with fewer mirrors, and different pairs of eyes.

Oscar chances: It’s Chile’s official submission for the Oscars and we should not discount it. B/B-

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Reader Comments (4)

I saw it yesterday and I loved it. Make no mistake, Daniela Vega is the true Wonder Woman of 2017. Everyone go see it!

October 19, 2017 | Unregistered CommenterPeggy Sue

Thanks for the write up. Really loved Gloria and I'm ecstatic to see this.

October 19, 2017 | Unregistered CommenterJess

Loved "Gloria" and I loved "A Fantastic Woman" too... Vega is amazing!
You should watch Portugal's submission: "São Jorge" (Saint George), a hit during last year's edition of Venice Film Fest. Amazing too! The lead actor is incredible.

October 19, 2017 | Unregistered CommenterEd

Such a great movie, even though it's obviously an Almodovar riff.

October 20, 2017 | Unregistered CommenterGlenn Dunks

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