Movie Reviews: A Fantastic Woman (2017)

My celebrating over the end of Oscar season was perhaps premature as now is the time for one last category of films to stagger out a few which have been largely unreleased in the US, the category of Best Foreign Language Film.  The great On Body and Soul and The Square (which I wasn’t able to make it to in the flurry of end of year releases) have already had their runs, but that still leaves a trio in LovelessThe Insult, and A Fantastic Woman being largely out of reach to the average moviegoer even after the ceremony ended.  Today’s film is in fact the winner in that category this year and a part of the far wider reach of inclusion that the ceremony this year celebrated (well when they weren’t giving awards to a rapist).

The contribution to that inclusion this film makes is of course the fact that it stars a trans character and unlike other recent and embarrassing portrayals, the character is actually portrayed by a trans actor, Daniela Vega.  Also, unlike Strong Island, this year’s other film noted for the involvement of a trans person, the film is actually good.  Vega’s performance is the selling point of the movie and the reason to see the film, so I will say that it is a great one.  Unlike the aforementioned performances which feature cis men giving broad tragic portrayals, Vega’s instead is of an actual human being.  She’s allowed to be funny without being camp, serious without being melodramatic.  Heck, she even gets to survive the movie (not that it is ever really in question that she would) which shouldn’t be some achievement.

The film itself is some pretty standard Oscar stuff.  Thankfully not of the everybody makes big speeches where they state their character’s (or others’) motivation type of film, but there is still that distinct flavor.  That’s not necessarily a bad thing, but it does seem tailored to appeal to critics and award bodies.  The plot which details the experiences of a woman after her partner dies suddenly is barely there, mostly stringing together her various experiences and moments.  There are a number or running subplots but without wishing to spoil, they all lead essentially nowhere, a narrative choice which is both interesting and undeniably unfulfilling.  While I can’t say I share my fellow audience members’ reaction of “what’s the point of that whole plot”, I can certainly understand where they are coming from since so many seemed to exist purely to show cruelty to its lead and how much it sucks to be trans.

There is not much in the way of character arcs or character depth outside of the titular woman which mostly left me wanting to know more about them (or in the case of quite a few, see them boiled alive) instead of the frustratingly fleeting glimpses we get into them.  I wouldn’t even say that we get too deep a look at her, compelling subject as she is, her first few minutes in the spotlight saying most of what needs to be said.  It’s one of the pitfalls of a focused narrative which unfolds over a short period of time.  Characters don’t develop, they just exist in a point of time.

The film doesn’t escape the “movies about LGBTQ characters must be depressing” trap, but the film does pepper in moments of levity to keep it from being too bleak.  Much of the depressing nature stems from the fact that it all just seems too realistic.  There are brief flirtations with magic realism, but like the aforementioned subplots, they don’t really add up to much and could probably have been taken out and no one would notice something missing.  Still, despite what elements feel underdeveloped or the way so many individual bits feel frustrating in their lack completeness, the film as a whole is satisfying and compelling if occasionally hard to watch.