It's the most talked about trans movie since the problematic The Danish Girl (2016), but A Fantastic Woman already has superior foundations through its casting and plot. Unlike Eddie Redmayne's depiction of Lili Elbe, the predicament of trans actress Daniela Vega's three-dimensional Marina does not involve a reason or fateful spark to explain why she is trans: she simply is. Instead, at the heart of the narrative is the reaction of institutions and individuals to a situation, when Marina's 57-year-old partner dies. From this, we see what a 21st century society thinks of a transgender woman. Marina is suspected by police officers of complicity in the partner's death, and reviled by the almost-in-laws for what they see as her perversion and chimera appearance.
What follows at the personal level is Marina's path through the trauma of loss, sometimes via Kafkaesque interrogation, other times dreamscape or hard realities. Literally and figuratively, the endgame coincides with her finding her voice.
Yet because of this narrative of suffering and silence and defiance, it can be argued that A Fantastic Woman is no masterpiece. Marina is decent, sincere and misunderstood, while those who oppose her are always objectionable. Marina is worthy of sympathy, but her arc by the end of the film feels complete and we can all go home. My own range of emotions, concurrently, rarely extended beyond anger and concern, though one hallucinating dance scene felt wonderfully free: a shift from documentary and drama into art.
Nevertheless, as a credible, believable representation of trans, let me count some ways in which this film is an upgrade on the misjudged schmaltz of The Danish Girl. What was once the taboo subject of sex in the life of a trans woman is abandoned for Marina's sensuous relationship with her partner: they kiss, they slow-dance, they fuck. I loved her anger, her 'You want me to act like an animal?' as she stamps all over the 4x4 car of the hateful ex-wife of her partner. Finally, Marina has a life of her own, as waitress and singer, no simpering caricature this, like The Danish Girl's retreat into play-school domesticity. Marina both endures and grows stronger as an independent adult in an adult's world, and given past and even present representations of trans as broken mirror, this is a portrayal to celebrate.