A Fantastic Woman is a film about a transgender woman, Marina Vidal (fiercely and sympathetically portrayed by Daniela Vega), who works as a singer and waitress in Santiago. One loses track of the number of scenes in this film where the heroine of film meets someone who has already pre-judged her as an enemy. The film unfolds in to the drama where she has just watched her lover succumb to an aneurysm and faces suspicion by all around.
The immensely watchable film of Chilean director Sebastián Lelio is luminous, unflinching fever-dream of a drama. Vega, the first trans actress to lead a major Oscar-nominated film (it’s already considered a frontrunner in the best foreign language category) is a force of nature: tender, furious, indomitable. Although the story feels less steady where her character must endure despise from nearly everyone in the city of Santiago — from her lover’s grown children and ex-wife to the doctors and detectives and security guards she encounters in the aftermath — merely for daring to exist. An encounter with the deceased's embittered ex-wife, Sonia (Aline Küppenheim), brings out the unambiguous disgust in her. "When I look at you," she snarls, "I don't know what I'm seeing." Marina is a transgender woman, whose dominant wish is that she be allowed to grieve—the most basic of human rights, that is continually denied to her. There is little to suspect Marina, much less anything criminal or malicious, yet she’s treated as a suspect, a pariah, and a burden rather than as a grief-stricken partner in need of time alone.
But even as Marina is shuttled into a corner, stripped of her dignity and rightful inheritance, and expected to quietly disappear; she exercises bold defiance and performs a little amateur sleuthing. Once the film’s high-tension drama gets underway, she rarely expresses anything other than righteous outrage. For the better part of two hours the film follows Marina as she races from devastation to determination, from righteous anger to melancholy understanding, across a city that views her with rude indifference at best and predatory contempt at worst.
The story, for all its cruelty, doesn't skimp on humour or optimism. When Marina isn't being assaulted by thugs and haters, she finds relief in the warmly supportive arms of people like her sister (Trinidad González) and music teacher (Sergio Hernandez). Even Orlando's brother, Gabo (Luis Gnecco), treats Marina with a level of decency and understanding that sets him apart from his relatives. But mostly she is treated like a pariah, an embarrassment, or worse: barred from the family funeral service, cast out of her apartment, forced to undergo a demeaning medical exam.
Director Lelio—whose other new film, Disobedience, about an affair between a married Orthodox Jew and another woman (played by Rachel McAdams and Rachel Weisz, respectively), opens this spring—seems less assured in terms of genre, tone, and character development. A Fantastic Woman is, above all, very careful. Marina’s antagonists seldom comes off as sheer monsters, while Marina herself is treated with such reverence that she winds up remaining something of a cypher for the film’s duration.
Lelio and his cinematographer Benjamín Echazarreta craft a number of visually seductive sequences and capture their numerous locations with an emphasis on urban diversity to mirror Santiago’s veiled yet vibrant diversity of lifestyles. Now and then, Lelio departs into reverie and daydream, and it’s here, loosening the bonds of his naturalistic style, that he draws us closer to the mystery of Marina.
Vega is transgender herself, and her casting has been rightly hailed as an art-house breakthrough in a field where the roles and the plaudits have tended to go to cisgender performers like Hilary Swank in Boys Don't Cry or Felicity Huffman in Transamerica. By the end of the film we know precisely what — or rather, who — we're looking at, but what matters more is that Marina seems to have known all along.
One can hope that A Fantastic Woman, with its prestige profile and accessibility, will help keep the gates open for further, richer explorations of the trans experience involving everyday phenomena such as love, death, and the creeping menace of exes and in-laws.