A Fantastic Woman
Chilean drama examines grief and gender
A Fantastic Woman (2018)
Directed by Sebastián Lelio
Cast: Daniela Vega, Francisco Reyes, Luis Gnecco
With a Best Foreign Language Film Oscar fresh in hand, A Fantastic Woman finally sweeps its way into a wide range of cinemas here in America. This widely celebrated drama about love and loss is the work of Chilean writer-director Sebastián Lelio. His hit 2013 romantic drama Gloria nabbed film festival and critics awards around the globe. Just last year he was was recruited to remake Gloria as an English language film with Julianne Moore in the lead role. Combine that with the Oscar win and you’ve got the recipe for Latin America’s newest up-and-comer, a quick-developing master of emotional indie dramas filled with quiet and dignified depth.
A Fantastic Woman introduces us to Marina (Daniela Vega), a transgender waitress who moonlights occasionally as a nightclub singer in bustling Santiago. Marina’s life is decidedly pedestrian, but the highlight of it is her relationship with Orlando (Francisco Reyes, The Club), the markedly older owner of a textile company. The two have been dating for nearly a year, and Marina has just moved into his well-appointed apartment. After a happy night of celebrating (it’s Marina’s birthday), Orlando wakes up in the middle of the night short of breath. Marina races him to the hospital, but he passes away from a stroke.
This tragic situation puts Marina in the unenviable position of contacting Orlando’s family. The tension of the situation is clearly exacerbated by the fact that Marina, the person with whom Orlando was romantically linked, is transgender. Orlando’s genial, passive brother (Luis Gnecco, Neruda) seems comfortable with Marina and is even sympathetic to her plight. Orlando’s ex-wife (Chilean TV icon Aline Küppenheim) comes across as cold-bloodedly materialistic, harping on about Orlando’s Volvo—perhaps as a way of deflecting her darker feelings. Orlando’s son (Nicolás Saavedra) is outright hostile, calling Marina an aberration and actively trying to kick her out of Orlando’s apartment.
Marina, for her part, is just trying to deal with her loss and grief. But she’s simply not granted the luxury. Doctors at the hospital look at her suspiciously. The police instantly misgender her and suspect her of somehow being complicit in Orlando’s untimely death. A detective from the Sexual Offenses Unit (Amparo Noguera) believes Marina to be a prostitute and “helps” her by trying to get her to admit that Orlando was beating her.
Few people (other than Orlando’s son) are outwardly antagonistic to Marina, but they all clearly look on her as something other than “normal.” Lelio’s incisive script dials in on the daily microagressions Marina (and others like her, no doubt) endure. Of course the whole situation here is exacerbated by the fact that Orlando, the lynchpin in the whole story, has passed away, leaving his family angry, grief-stricken and confused. Almost no one here are on their best behavior.
The strength of the film, unsurprisingly, lies in the remarkable central performance by Vega. The transgender singer/actress was originally approached by Lelio as a consultant on this film. As the script began to take shape, and Lelio borrowed more and more personal experiences from his “muse,” he decided to entrust her with the lead role. Marina comes across as sturdy and self-possessed no matter what comes her way. She doesn’t even pause to cry over her partner’s death and seems inured to the disrespect of others—and yet you can instantly sense the love she had for Orlando and the pain she’s going through.
The titular adjective is a savvy acknowledgment of the questions and confusions surrounding gender in today’s society. Fantastic can certainly mean “great.” But it can also mean “not real.” That’s certainly how many people look at Marina—as “not a real woman.” (Orlando’s ex-wife pointedly calls her a “chimera.”) But Lelio and Vega are smart enough, self-aware enough and confident to explore the idea themselves. The “masculine” traits that Marina has retained are interesting. (She is often seen boxing or punching—although never another human being.) A late plot development in which Marina finds herself having to enter a male locker room, similarly looks at the duality of her sexual makeup. Still, Lelio is sensitive enough to the topic and to his subject that he never treats Marina’s gender as a costume to be taken on and off.
There are moments when Lelio delves into flights of fancy (a colorful, choreographed, mid-film dance sequence, for example) that threaten to lead him into the campy realm of fellow melodrama practitioner Pedro Almodóvar. But the sequences are such brief flickers, they don’t disrupt the melancholy flow of the film. They also drive home the idea that Lelio isn’t interested in pushing total doom and gloom here. A Fantastic Woman is hardly a comedy, but it does leave room for lighter moments. Occasionally, Lelio’s symbolism seems a bit on-the-nose (mirrors, the conspicuous use of Aretha Franklin’s “(You Make Me Feel Like) A Natural Woman”)—but there’s such a savvy audacity to their inclusion that these moments rarely feel pretentious or lazy (as symbols often can).
In the end A Fantastic Woman is a tiny character study of a film. It covers barely a week in Marina’s life and—aside from the tragedy of Orlando’s death—deals with only the most miniscule of worldly changes. And yet there’s an almost gut-wrenching impact to the emotional journey our heroine endures. Kudos to creator, cast and crew for sweeping us along with their compassion.