The opening credits roll over a waterfall. Four cascades crash into a foamy, white centre. This image of violent flux will be applied many times to the face and body of Marina (Daniela Vega): her countenance wobbles in the reflection of a mirror held up by two workers; she’s disfigured by the pulsing lights – red, white, red, white – of a nightclub; her face is pulled into a hideous gurn by sellotape wrapped violently around her head. Marina is a trans woman. These images show an identity that’s provisional, interrogative, underdetermined. And the people she comes into contact with – desperate for simplicity and fixedness – find this ongoing flux uncomfortable. One accusation becomes a refrain: ‘I don’t know who you are.’
After her partner dies, she is forced to defend her legitimacy to his family and the state. His ex-wife calls her a pervert and a chimera. Marina’s boss – otherwise a comradely figure – reproaches her for being mysterious. If she is enigmatic, sometimes to the point of inscrutability, it’s because Chilean society has taught her to guard against an attack that is always imminent. People, especially state officials, are so cruel, and so casual about it: they use her old, male name; they watch while she undresses; they refuse to acknowledge she had a ‘healthy, loving, consensual relationship’.
There are scenes where she negotiates conflict through exactitude, wearing a mask of desperate civility. The most memorable sees her walking through a sauna, transitioning from female to male, passing as both, in order to open her partner’s locker. It’s a brilliantly suspenseful use of gender fluidity. Elsewhere, she is triumphant. She fights for custody of her dog and she wins, and in the end she is able to resume her life. As the title of the film announces, the tone is celebratory. Marina is a FANTASTIC WOMAN, not some opaque, amorphous chimera. Vega was by all accounts an integral part of the creative process, and her character vibrates with life, especially in the scenes of tenderness. Early on, she’s in love, singing, laughing, having sex. The scenes between her and her piano teacher feel sincerely intimate; he sermonises, ‘You don’t ask for love or peace. You say “let me be your instrument of love, let me be your vessel of peace”’. And – most powerful of all – there is the magical realist song-and-dance sequence, when she seems to inhabits her flesh in a grand and perfect way. The discoteque atmosphere is unusually exhilarating, managing to communicate the spontaneous thrill of the sesh, an almost prefigurative moment.
It’s not a perfect film, but at this point in the culture it’s an important film: a celebration of survival, performed with the rhythm of resistance.