What makes a person? More so, what factors create a person’s identity? What if a person doesn’t or can’t see themselves as what the rest of the world determines they should be? These questions and a thousand others permeate every frame of “A Fantastic Woman”, creating a thought provoking and complex artwork that expands beyond the borders of the movie screen.
The movie is able to generate these questions because of its amazing lead character, Merina. One of the classic theories of creating drama is to create a character with contradictions or opposites inherent within them. The butcher who is a vegetarian, for example. This allows you to explore that character’s choices and actions, but more importantly it gives the audience a means of relating and empathizing with that character. “A Fantastic Woman” succeeds greatly because that dichotomy exists at the very core of Merina’s identity and informs not just everything she does, but also how every other character around her reacts and deals with her presence. The movie also succeeds because these issues are all dealt with on a level of subtely, grace, compassion, confidence and realism through which the audience is challenged to deconstruct its premise.
Merina’s journey begins with a birthday dinner for her given by her partner and lover, Orlando. Unconcerned with developing the how and why of how they fell in love, the movie simply presents their relationship as something already solid, accepted, and established. So from the opening scene, “A Fantastic Woman” explores the idea of what is accepted as normal and who is it that gets to decide what is normal. That foundation allows a wealth of opportunity for the growth and development of Merina as well as a common frame of reference for the societal questions that arise out of the film, which is a rare feat. Following a disastrous turn of events in which Orlando suffers an aneurysm and dies after Merina takes him to the hospital, we accompany Merina as her identity, motivations and very existence is called into question by nearly everyone else around her. Merina has to endure through a constant stream of prejudice, stereotypes, bullying and acceptance every step of the way, on top of dealing with the trauma of losing a loved one. One of the characteristics that makes Merina not just a fantastic woman but simply a fantastic person, is that she is able to deal with everything while absolutely refusing to let this tragedy define her. The fact that she makes it through all this with an extremely limited support network highlights just how strong Merina has had to be in making the decisions to get her life to where it is now. We get to witness Merina’s strength of character continue to develop on a moment-by-moment basis, with every step of her odyssey contributing to her ability to understand and define herself. When the nurse brings her Orlando’s personal effects and asks if she is family, her response is no. A few moments later when the doctor comes out and asks the same question, she answers affirmatively that they are partners, and lovers. Now part of this is motivated by the fact she realizes that she needs to say this in order to get details from the physician, but the small step of her not being afraid of acknowledging the depth of their relationship also shows that she is gaining the courage to understand herself. A trait that anyone can relate to.
Merina then finds herself encountering bigger and bigger challenges to her identity, and each time becoming more and more confident to freely express herself. The policeman who tells her that Daniel is the name on her ID card and that’s her true name to which she defiantly responds that her name is Merina. The sexual offences officer who questions the nature of the relationship because of their age difference. Encounters with Orlando’s son and ex-wife that denigrate her humanity. Wave after wave of grief and hardship washes over Merina and yet she continuously moves forward against the headwinds, bending but never breaking.
Thankfully we see that Merina does have some outside support to help her maintain her self-confidence. Her employer who asks if she wants to talk about what’s going on. The sister that refers to her as her sister even though she has probably spent years saying brother. Her vocal coach with his candid honesty and advice that challenges her to be confident. Orlando’s brother Gabo, the only member of the family that unconditionally accepts and defends Merina’s identity as female. Each one of these showing that no matter what, a person is a person, and on that basis alone should be able to claim the basic human rights that give us our dignity.
Underscoring all these struggles is how our perceptions also define what we see as acceptable. The climax of the film occurs in a masterpiece of a sequence where Merina visits a sauna as a female but with a couple of entirely superficial alterations walks past everyone completely transitioned and accepted as a man without question. The end of this scene is punctuated with Merina looking straight into the camera, asking the audience silently, “What do you see?”; calling back to other points in the film where Merina was doing the same thing, challenging us to determine what is so different now and has anything really changed between those images we saw of the exact same person just a few short minutes ago? That is truly one of the best and most meaningful scenes you are ever likely to see in a film.
The movie comes to a close after that, with Merina managing to stand up once again to the ex-wife and refusing to pretend that she is someone she’s not. She gets to say her final goodbye to Orlando with the realization that she now has the self-compassion to see herself as he did, live her life and appreciate that he helped her find her true voice, which we get to experience through a beautiful aria Merina delivers as the camera once again slowly closes in on her face, knowingly showing us that we have now seen her true self.