This year’s competition for the Best Foreign Language Oscar was tough. Besides Sweden’s The Square, a satire about an art curator’s life that is by turns deadpan and terrifying, there was Lebanon’s The Insult, Russia’s Loveless, Hungary’s On Body and Soul and the winner, Chile’s A Fantastic Woman.
The latter won widespread attention for the fact that not only is the title role about a transgender waitress and nightclub singer, but the character is also played by a transgender actress, Daniela Vega. With its win, the film has started to open widely throughout the country; it’s now in Cincinnati and Dayton.
The “Fantastic Woman” at the heart of director Sebastián Lelio’s film is Marina, in the midst of a tender affair with Orlando (Francisco Reyes), an older man who has completely given his heart and soul to her.
After catching one of Marina’s haunting performances (reminiscent of Isabella Rossellini in Blue Velvet), Orlando takes her out for a birthday dinner before heading home for a more private celebration. In the middle of the night, Orlando wakes up dazed and confused. Marina struggles to get him to the hospital as quickly as possible, but Orlando dies of an aneurysm.
Orlando’s death proves to be the inciting incident in a social drama about the tragic mistreatment of anyone outside the confines of what society deems normal. From the moment Marina and Orlando arrive at the hospital, Lelio (who performed a similar miracle of conjuring intimacy in his previous film Gloria, about an older woman in search of love) offers audiences the chance to be flies on the wall. We watch as the staff displays discomfort with the relationship between Marina and Orlando. Questions spring forth. Is Marina his daughter or lover? And soon, gender distinctions also come into play.
There are procedural elements that pop up, especially once the police begin to suspect foul play — Orlando’s body has fresh wounds, sustained during a tumble down the stairs in his apartment building as Marina attempted to gather his things. A supposedly sympathetic female police officer from the sex crimes unit (Amparo Noguera) wonders if Orlando had been abusive, forcing Marina to fight back in self-defense. The officer’s cold pursuit of the truth leaves Marina physically and psychologically vulnerable.
There are also Marina’s fraught interactions with Orlando’s family. Orlando’s brother Gabo (Luis Gnecco) seems genuine in his interactions with Marina, but Orlando’s ex-wife Sonia (Aline Küppenheim) usurps all of Marina’s rights to mourning, barring her from attending the wake and the funeral. Things become more dangerous when Orlando’s son seeks to throw Marina out of his father’s apartment and even enlists male family members to attack Marina after the funeral in an alley.
In each of these cases, what Lelio presents is the contrast between how others perceive Marina and how she truly is. Despite her prominent features and build, along with her fierce independence, Marina is not the fighter everyone sees. Behind the melancholy she obviously feels, having lost her lover, there is a core to the character that Vega captures, which needs to be protected at all costs. In those early scenes with Orlando, we see and feel nothing more than Marina’s desire to be loved, to enjoy this one chance at happiness. But Vega lets us in on her secret: She doesn’t quite trust her right to be happy.
A Fantastic Woman steers clear of probing its soap-opera elements. A lesser filmmaker would have taken us down the path where the police hound Marina, seeking to turn Orlando’s death into a homicide just so we could get a sensational court case or a titillating scene of jailhouse abuse.
All of us deal with an ongoing existential crisis, but in Marina’s case it is compounded by social mores. And Lelio is wise enough to trust us with her all-too-human burden. The harsh treatment she receives every step along the way in the film is infinitely more devastating than any of the plot-driven hijinks. As it is, the film makes Marina truly unique and inspirational.
(Now playing at the Esquire Theatre) (R)