The desire to be seen, and to see one’s self, is at the heart of A Fantastic Woman, Chilean director Sebastian Lelio’s stirring portrait of a transgender woman’s efforts to cope with the death of her partner—and, in doing so, to confront a world that refuses to accept her on her own terms.
As timely as it is upsetting and, in the end, uplifting, it’s a cry for tolerant recognition made without any of Hollywood’s typical speechifying and over-sentimental smushiness. And it’s one that derives its power from the magnificent lead performance of Daniela Vega as its beaten-up, but never broken-down, heroine.
Much will likely be made of the fact that Vega not only stars as a transgender woman, but is one herself—thus bucking what some view as an offensive mainstream practice of casting straight actors in such roles (see: Dallas Buyers Club or the upcoming Always). Whether or not a non-transgender actor or actress could have successfully starred in A Fantastic Woman, however, is ultimately beside the point; what’s of prime importance is that Vega delivers a star-making turn of quiet suffering and steely resolve, ably shouldering the dramatic load of a film that keeps her, at all times, front and center. Following in the footsteps of Orange is the New Black’s Laverne Cox and Sense8’s Jamie Clayton, Vega proves an accomplished performer—vulnerable, intense, defiant and above all, mesmerizing.
Produced by his countryman Pablo Larrain (Jackie), Lelio’s film focuses, initially, on Orlando (Francisco Reyes), a middle-aged, silver-haired textile factory manager who’s introduced first at a local sauna, next searching for a missing envelope, and finally heading out for the evening to a nightclub, where he’s entranced by the band’s young singer, Marina (Vega). From their eye contact alone, it’s apparent that they’re well-acquainted with each other, and that notion is confirmed by their subsequent dinner together, during which Orlando has the Chinese restaurant bring Marina a birthday cake (replete with song), and presents her with her gift: a trip to the Iguazu Falls. After some steamy disco ball-illuminated dancing, they retreat to his place, where things become even more passionate.
Then, in the middle of the night, Orlando awakens, feeling unwell. And in that moment, Marina’s seemingly stable world begins to crumble right before her eyes.
While trying to transport Orlando to the hospital, he accidentally falls down his apartment building stairs. That injury only compounds Orlando’s preexisting ailment, which—by the time they get him medical treatment—turns out to be fatal. It’s a sudden, devastating blow for Marina, and it immediately places her in a precarious position, questioned by the police about her role in Orlando’s demise (given that he has multiple questionable bruises) and, more uncomfortable still, glared at suspiciously by individuals who view her as abnormal and, thus, somehow shady. Marina only makes things worse for herself by fleeing the scene, which attracts the attention of Sexual Offenses Unit detective Antonia (Amparo Noguera), who the next day compels her—via threats—to come into the station and submit to a nude full-body exam, ostensibly to determine whether Marina was herself a victim of abuse. The real message, resounding as loudly as a church bell, is clear to Marina: she’s a freak, to be whispered about in private by men and women alike, her transgender status a sign of her inherent untrustworthiness.
In subsequent encounters with Orlando’s son Bruno (Nicolas Saavedra), who decries her as a “faggot,” or Orlando’s estranged wife Sonia (Aline Kuppenheim)—who wants Orlando’s car back, but allows Marina to stay temporarily in his apartment, despite her seething hatred for this situation—Marina is made to feel like a sordid little secret. Save for the sympathy shown by Orlando’s brother Gabo (Luis Gnecco), Marina is regarded as the shame of an otherwise respectable family, and therefore someone who should be treated with forthright abuse. Even more than such outright slander, though, it’s the cutting offhand remarks made to Marina (even by her brother-in-law) which speak volumes about how many cisgender people view her—namely, as something inhuman, caught between two worlds and unfit to naturally inhabit either.
Throughout her ordeal, which soon involves attempts to attend Orlando’s wake and funeral—where she wishes to contend with her own grief—Marina comes across as a figure of stoic sorrow, victimized by fate as well as by those who refuse to acknowledge her for who she is. Her condition is further complicated by recurring visions of Orlando, whose appearances lend A Fantastic Woman a quasi-ghost story somberness. Compassionately considering her plight, Lelio shoots Marina in either direct close-ups or from behind her head, his camera highly attuned to her relationship to her surroundings. He also captures Marina’s reflection in mirrors or windows—including a wobbly piece of plate glass carried through city streets—as a means of visualizing her ongoing identity issues, which come to full-bodied life during an exuberant fantasy dance sequence featuring Marina decked out in a shiny-tasseled coat.
It’s Vega, however, who truly carries A Fantastic Woman. Her Marina is an outcast of staunch determination and defiance, set on saying goodbye to Orlando no matter the ramifications, even as one senses the below-the-surface pain caused by each new insult hurled her way. Vega embodies her as outwardly unwavering and yet internally aggrieved by both circumstance and a society content to deem her as the disgraceful “other.” Often locating the character’s multifaceted range of emotions with minimal expressions or gestures, her subtle performance is enhanced by its refusal to engage in the sort of histrionics that might spell out the chaos raging within. Beautifully expressing her character’s remarkable (and believably messy) courage and tenacity in the face of discrimination, she makes Marina’s story one about the tumultuous search for self, and the everyday battles required to retain the right to define the nature of that identity.
In the process, her Marina—strange, incredible and altogether unique—ably lives up to the film’s title.