Sebastián Lelio’s “A Fantastic Woman” settles into a defiantly grounded drama about a trans woman fighting through her grief, but it starts with some incredible sleight of hand.
Set at the height of a Santiago summer, the film begins with a man named Orlando (“The Club” actor Francisco Reyes) as he gets a massage at his local sauna. Fifty-seven years old and looking like a gentler Jeremy Irons, Orlando leaves the health club and steps into the tired Chilean sun, eventually making his way to a nearby nightclub. He locks eyes with the singer onstage as soon as he steps inside, and she returns his attention with interest. Her name is Marina (first-time actress Daniela Vega), she’s roughly half Orlando’s age, and she’s very much in love with him. The feeling is mutual.
Later that night, the two of them have sex against the floor-to-ceiling window of the high-rise apartment they share together. Afterwards, Orlando suffers an aneurysm, falls down a flight of stairs, and dies. At the hospital, Marina is treated like a criminal; not because of the terrible bruises on her partner’s body, but because she’s transgender. It will be the first of the many indignities she’ll have to suffer as she mourns the greatest loss of her life. In most tellings of this story — and in the opening passages of this one — Marina would be little more than a curious accessory, a fetish object who exists for no other reason than to complicate the male lead’s inner crisis. In Lelio’s film, she becomes the story, and that pivot does not go unnoticed. “A Fantastic Woman” is about her, and damn if she doesn’t earn that title.
Second only to Pablo Larraín among Chile’s most popular emerging filmmakers, the young Lelio has already established himself as a compassionate chronicler of marginalized women (Paulina García won Best Actress at the 2013 Berlinale for her role as an aging divorcée in Lelio’s “Gloria”). He deepens that sense of empathy here, unpacking a drama that resists the heightened sensationalism of genre and remains sobering even as it cribs a number of highly stylized elements from the likes of Fassbinder and Almodóvar.
The result is a rare movie about a trans person that — for better or worse — feels of its time, and not at least a half-step behind. The casual (and then not so casual) prejudice that Marina has to put up with from Orlando’s family is completely believable, as are the pockets of space where she’s able to simply be her own person, whether during her shifts as a waitress or just sitting alone in her car, anonymous amidst the traffic.
Vega plays her character with the steady resolve of someone who knows that they bring out the worst from strangers, and the rookie does a remarkable job of negotiating a heartache that she’s told she isn’t entitled to feel, delicately sliding between love and blankness, and rage. I suspect she’s drawing upon first-hand experience.
It begins with her having to downplay the nature of her relationship with Orlando (“We’re friends,” she tells the doctor), and soon escalates into denying that her dead lover paid her for her companionship. Orlando’s ex-wife rejects Marina for being abnormal, snidely referring to her as a “chimera” (a term that makes you wince with its bestial implications). Orlando’s son does far worse, taping her mouth shut and stealing her dog. Only the deceased’s brother — played by round-faced “Neruda” star Luis Gnecco — is humane to her, but his unerring saintliness is a dull foil for such open hostility.
As the funeral preparations proceed and everyone begins to grapple with the fallout, the film starts to flirt a bit more heavily with its flourishes. Marina sees visions of Orlando often enough to make this feel like a ghost story, while the one-sided war that her dead lover’s family is waging against her eventually crescendoes from the soft bigotry of cruel remarks to the stuff of bonafide hate crimes, in the process giving Lelio every opportunity to spin this story into a righteous crusade of revenge.
But he resists — Marina compels him to. She allows for a smattering of daydream sequences, each more transcendent and beautifully choreographed than the last, but her circumstances are too pedestrian to support anything more than that. She and Orlando were in love; now he’s dead and she’s in mourning. It’s simple. By filling in the space between the normality of that predicament and the nightmare that it becomes for its heroine, “A Fantastic Woman” exposes the embarrassing banality of intolerance.
Lelio supports that idea by denying viewers the kind of information to which normative society often feels entitled. When Orlando’s son demands to know if Marina has had reassignment surgery, her curt reply speaks volumes: “You don’t ask that.” The movie hears her, it takes that response to heart. It doesn’t ask that. While the storytelling grows frustratingly elliptical, Lelio so desperate to constrain the drama that he resorts to removing helpful pieces of it, the scenes that remain are succinct and evocative.
Consider one bit towards the end of the film, which finds Marina completely naked in the tub. Lelio looks at her from the side, inviting viewers to crane their necks and look for something between her legs. What we see, when he cuts to a POV shot, is a circular mirror wedged between her thighs, a clear reflection of her face obscuring the sight of her genitals. What more is there to see? Lelio’s film fogs up that gaze, not with easy declarations of empathy that absolve our bleeding hearts, but with a gripping, nuanced character study that humiliates our ignorance.
“I see you,” Orlando’s ex-wife says to Marina, “and I don’t know what I’m looking at.” But the movie leaves no doubt: She’s looking at a fantastic woman.
“A Fantastic Woman” premiered in Competition at the 2017 Berlinale. Sony Pictures Classics will release it later this year.