Update: A Fantastic Woman won the Oscar for Best Foreign Language Film at the 90th Annual Academy Awards.
At a certain point in life, loving someone romantically can eventually become a circumstance where you suddenly have to consider that other person in your major life decisions, and you in theirs. But love stories, at least the ones typically depicted in films, don’t do a great job of exploring this. They often end with a sappy happily ever after that doesn’t care to be convoluted by real-life social, political, and economic forces that shape the logistics of our romances. But these details matter, and often times they only highlight the intensity of the love that two people have for each other, not diminish it.
All of my favorite relationship narratives — for example, the one between Yorkie (Mackenzie Davis) and Kelly (Gugu Mbatha-Raw) on Black Mirror’s “San Junipero” — are so much more powerful when it’s complicated. The two women had to grapple with the reality of death as a factor in their “life” together. Black Mirror is obviously a series that deals in fantasy and science fiction, and truthfully, so do way too many romance narratives. This is why the Oscar-nominated Chilean film, A Fantastic Woman, is the only story about love and loss that I’m giving my full endorsement to this Valentine’s season.
Directed by Sebastian Lelio, A Fantastic Woman is about a young waitress and singer, Marina (Daniela Vega), who is happily in love with her older, divorced boyfriend, Orlando (Francisco Reyes). After celebrating Marina's birthday together, Orlando falls ill at the home they share and collapses down the stairs. He dies shortly after arriving at the hospital, and suddenly the fact that Marina is trans matters more than ever. She is ostracized and mistreated by Orlando’s family, including his ex-wife and son. Police are suspicious of the circumstances under which Orlando died and treat Marina like a suspect. She has just lost the love of her life and the person she planned on spending the rest of her life with, and the consequences of her gender identity have made it very difficult to mourn this loss.
Despite the popular fairy tale myth that true love is the simple result of two people who only have eyes for each other, people who live on the margins know this is not necessarily the case. Marina became a suspect in a crime that wasn’t even committed because trans people are often unnecessarily criminalized. When Orlando’s son threatened to kick her out of the flat she shared with Orlando, she stared an uphill battle in the face. Trans people in Chile face institutionalized discrimination in employment and housing similar what their U.S. counterparts face, despite laws that exist to prevent them. This is undoubtedly a continuation of the hostility Orlando and Marina faced when he was alive. The truth is that when you are poor, trans, queer, disabled, not white, or Christian, love looks a lot different, and way less corny.
And this is why we need more movies like A Fantastic Woman. Love is one aspect of racial, gender, and class privilege that we don’t interrogate enough. Whiteness, straightness, cis-ness, and financial stability come with an entitlement to cliched love that is boring at best. There is no happy ending for Orlando and Marina. He is dead, and their time together has ended. The transphobia she experiences in the wake of his death is equally heartbreaking. But it’s Marina’s resilience — the essence of her being that inspired the name of the film — in loving Orlando in both life and death is the most endearing and touching thing you’ll see on Valentine’s Day. Catch it at an indie theater near you.