Courtesy of Sony Pictures Classics

Courtesy of Sony Pictures Classics

The Trans-cendent ‘A Fantastic Woman’

The brilliant Chilean Oscar nominee actually lets a strong trans person play a lead trans role.

At one point in her stressful week, Marina (Daniela Vega) encounters a stiff wind while walking along a Santiago sidewalk. She stops for a moment, planting her high heels against the ground and leaning forward into the current—and then she just keeps tilting, to a degree not possible in physics, but eminently believable within the emotional framework of the movie draped around her sturdy shoulders. A Fantastic Woman is the Chilean Oscar nominee for the Best Foreign Language Film, and if voters are swayed at all by the old-school attractions of underdog characters or indomitable heroines, this terrific movie should win in a walk.

We meet Marina enjoying a warm relationship with her older, divorced beau Orlando (Francisco Reyes, an elegant Jeremy Irons type).When she sings salsa at a nightclub, he gazes at her with besotted wonder. Then, like something out of a telenovela—this movie has its share of melodramatic soap-opera moments—Orlando suffers an aneurysm and dies. Many personal issues and bureaucratic hurdles ensue (Orlando bloodied himself in a fall, so the police have questions), but the scrutiny is especially pointed because Marina is transgender.

Orlando’s ex-wife (Aline Kuppenheim) is scathing in her contempt, his resentful son is violent, and the police are either sarcastic or bending so far backwards to be politically correct that they end up causing Marina more humiliation.

Director Sebastian Lelio’s previous film was the striking Gloria (2013), which also brought a laser focus to a woman’s struggle. In both films, Lelio makes surprising choices, deepening and complicating the scenarios. Because movies that are considered groundbreaking can be weighted with extra accountability, you might expect A Fantastic Woman to be careful and respectable. (Look! A film with a transgender character at its center, played by a trans actor, not Eddie Redmayne!) You would be wrong. While one’s empathy for Marina never wavers, her personality is distinctive and spiky. She becomes withdrawn when she’s justified in retaliating, and she’s hostile when it would be wise for her to politely comply. Every contradiction furthers the movie’s argument that what we have here is a densely complicated human being.

None of which would be the same without the very specific presence of Vega, an actual trans woman, in the lead role. Lelio and co-writer Gonzalo Maza originally consulted Vega while they developed the screenplay, and only later offered her the starring part. The performance relies more on interior smoldering than outward histrionics, which suggests how much hostility Marina has already absorbed, and how expert she’s gotten at holding back. At one point, however, she slams her high heels into the top of a car belonging to her enemies, a gratifying explosion the movie needs. Vega should’ve gotten an Oscar nomination for this splendid turn, but didn’t—not, I suspect, because she’s transgender (Hollywood would love nothing more than to appear enlightened on that score)—but because the performance is too subtle for the preferred pyrotechnics in the acting categories.

A Fantastic Woman flirts with magical realism, as that bending-against-the-wind scene suggests, but Lelio generally keeps the film in touch with everyday, mundane matters. For instance, when Marina and Orlando slow-dance, their song is not something chosen to demonstrate the filmmaker’s musical hipness, but the moist Alan Parsons Project hit “Time.” And speaking of music, the film is shrewd in allowing Marina a singing voice—eventually it comes out that she’s classically trained—to channel the bolder colors of her emotional life. She also waits tables during the day, because being fantastic does not always pay the bills.

A Fantastic Woman

Opens Fri., Feb. 23 at SIFF Cinema Egyptian | Rated R

More in Arts & Culture

Cat Power (aka Chan Marshall). Photo by Julien Bourgeois
Cat Power Powers Through

The acclaimed singer-songwriter chats about her stripped-down new album ‘Wanderer,’ motherhood, and when performance gets in the way of the song.

Sloucher displaying surprisingly decent posture. Photo by Eleanor Petry
Sloucher Is Not Posturing

The Seattle band doesn’t shy away from embracing ’90s guitar rock on ‘Be True.’

Rhino riggers protest outside of the Jay-Z and Beyonce show outside of Seattle’s CenturyLink Field on Oct. 4, 2018. Photo courtesy of IATSE
The Backstage Blues: Riggers Complain of Unfair Labor Practices

Theatrical stage employees come for the music and stay for the thrill. But at what price?

Viola Davis and Cynthia Erivo star in ‘Widows.’ Photo by Merrick Morton
Crime Doesn’t Pay Off in ‘Widows’

Steve McQueen’s feminist heist thriller stretches itself far too thin.

Tim Blake Nelson plays the titular Buster Scruggs. Photo courtesy Netflix
‘The Ballad of Buster Scruggs’ Is a Wagon Train of Dark Mischief

The Coen brothers’ new anthology seves as a glorious ode to Westerns’ dusty death.

City Arts Ceases Publication

The free local culture magazine shuts down operations after 12 years.

Greta Klein (center right) brings the soft indie pop Frankie Cosmos to The Neptune. Photo by Angel Ceballos
The Soft Comfort of Frankie Cosmos

Sub Pop’s tenderest band brings its indie pop to The Neptune.

French dance company Compagnie Käfig brings the lights of ‘Pixel’ to Meany Center. Photo by Laurent Philippe
Pick List: Compagnie Käfig, Brooklyn Rider, Pete Souza

The week’s best entertainment offerings.

Most Read