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 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 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 She becomes withdrawn when she’s justified in retaliating, and she’s hostile when it would be wise for her to politely comply.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. 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.
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.