How about a break from superheroes, franchises, gunplay and things that are instantly forgettable? A Fantastic Woman—from the fine Chilean director Sebastian Lelio (Gloria) and a nominee for the best foreign film Oscar—is very, very good. In fact, it’s … well … fantastic. Standing at the movie’s center is a towering performance from Daniela Vega—and by the way, one might well ask, where’s her Oscar nomination?
Vega, a trans actress, plays young Marina Vidal, who waits table and occasionally sings in a Santiago cabaret. After a birthday dinner, with the sudden and disorienting death of her 57-year-old divorced live-in lover, Orlando (Francisco Reyes), Marina’s existence takes on decidedly dramatic, up-against-it quality, and Lelio’s superb movie shifts into a hallucinatory and imaginatively spectacular mode.
The film, which initially suggests it might be something of a modern-day film noir centered around a mysterious femme fatale, becomes fraught with much more interesting and relevant questions. Who is Marina? Being transgender, is she even a woman? In an overwhelmingly macho culture and as an outlier from a modest background, is she entitled to respect, dignity, sexual expression, let alone does she even have a right to exist and thrive?
Dealing with hospital personnel who call her by her male birth name, and investigated by an invasive detective who subjects her to a pointless and humiliating physical inspection, she’s viewed with suspicion, condescension, curiosity, revulsion and outright hostility. She’s a target for goons and freaks. Her own terrible and debilitating grief is denied, mocked.
In a movie that brims over with Dickensian cruelty, there’s also plenty of humor and grace.
Facing Orlando’s reeling, confused ex-wife (a terrifyingly icy Aline Kuppenheim) and grown son (Nicolas Saavedra), Marina is an object of scorn and disgust as they refuse to let this “chimera” attend Orlando’s funeral. They take her car and dog, and start the clock on tossing her from the apartment she and Orlando shared.
Lelio, a clear-eyed realist, and his Gloria co-screenwriter and former film critic Gonzalo Maza pile on the injustices Marina experiences, and they feel not only like ruthless insults specific to her unique situation as a sexual minority, but also things many women experience regularly the world over. In a movie that brims over with Dickensian cruelty, there’s also plenty of humor and grace, especially when the heroine interacts with her loving sister (Trinidad Gonzalez) and gets to spend time with her dead lover’s humane and caring brother (Luis Gnecco).
The bold cinematography of Benjamin Echazarreta helps let us in on the heroine’s rich inner life. He turns a gay rave sequence into one of Marina’s most gorgeous fever dreams, and throughout the two-hour movie, he refracts light, color and multiple mirrored imagery to hit us again and again with visual reminders of Marina’s complicated many shades and personae. The cameraman’s style is right in tune with a movie that keeps playing with our heads, starting with that too-literal title A Fantastic Woman that, in the end, it proves exactly right.
Similarly, Lelio rolls the dice on a musical sequence designed around Aretha Franklin’s classic take on Carole King’s “(You Make Me Feel Like) A Natural Woman.” Of course, the song choice feels bluntly on the nose at first. But Lelio and Vega send the moment soaring into fascinating, complex territory that speaks volumes about gender identity and representation.
This heroine has guts, a spine, a stoic presence that commands respect and empathy. As played charismatically, unsentimentally and exquisitely by Vega, and as handled so compassionately and intelligently by the director and screenplay, it’s impossible to write her off the way so many of the characters in the film do. She’s fought to be and knows exactly who she is. It’s those around her who don’t. She demands to be seen, heard and appreciated. So does A Fantastic Woman.
Read more of Stephen Rebello’s movie reviews here.