Chilean director Sebastián Lelio’s “A Fantastic Woman,” the favorite to win this year’s Oscar for best foreign language film, is about the tribulations of a transgender woman in present-day Santiago, Chile. The woman is Marina Vidal, a waitress and nightclub singer with operatic aspirations, and she is played by a transgender actress, Daniela Vega, in a tour de force performance that places her front and center for almost the entire movie.
We first see Marina in a nightclub where her male lover, Orlando (Francisco Reyes), who has left his wife for her, shows up for what becomes an intimate birthday celebration. He is in his 50s, she’s 27, and both are clearly enraptured by each other. But that night when they are together in his apartment, which she is about to move into, Orlando collapses, falling down a long flight of stairs. He dies soon after in the hospital, unleashing a torrent of grief and confusion and accusation. The hospital authorities don’t recognize Marina as an immediate family member, and since Orlando’s body was bruised from his fall, she comes under suspicion from investigators for foul play.
Since we know the cause of those bruises, we are immediately placed in direct sympathy with Marina. She is not even recognized as a woman: A policeman in the hospital glances at her ID, which still refers to her as male, and calls her “sir.” A female investigator, who respects Marina’s gender transition, at least until she is out of Marina’s earshot, requires her to undergo a strip search to determine if she also is bruised.
There is a hint of the Hitchcock who made “The Wrong Man” in this scenario: Marina has to navigate a labyrinth of roadblocks in order to assert her innocence. (In an unnecessary plot development, there is even a mysterious key to a locked and unlocated safe.) But the real obstacles here are between Marina and Orlando’s family: his ex-wife Sonia (Aline Küppenheim) and his son Bruno (Nicolás Saavedra), who wastes little time in forcing Marina out of Orlando’s apartment where she had taken up residence and been caring for his dog.
Sonia tries to make sense of Marina’s hold on Orlando, but her brutal honesty wins out. “When I look at you, I don’t know what I’m seeing,” she tells Marina in one of their first encounters after Orlando’s death. Then she adds, “A chimera, that’s what I’m seeing.” Marina accepts her confusion without offense or disdain, but then Sonia makes it known that she will not allow Marina to attend Orlando’s funeral. This strikes at Marina’s heart. She believes that “saying goodbye to a loved one is a basic human right.” Out of her love for Orlando, and her rage at being excluded from the service, she single-mindedly engineers a way to mourn that brings her grief out into the open.
A smattering of people – including Marina’s sister and an old friend of Orlando’s – are in sympathy with Marina, but Lelio, and his screenwriter, Gonzalo Maza, have essentially positioned her as a lone crusader. This is the film’s basic flaw: By defining Marina almost entirely in relation to the opposition she faces, they reduce a complex individual to a transgender feminist standard-bearer.
If Pedro Almodóvar, especially in his early days, had directed this film, he might have brought out the black comedy inherent in the piece, which would have made both the blackness and the comedy more fully resonate. Despite Vega’s intensity, which never fails to hold the screen, there is an impassivity to her performance. Because we are rarely brought into what her life might have been like before she met Orlando, her hard-bitten righteousness becomes a bit wearying. When we see her singing in the smoky nightclubs, or, later, on the classical stage singing an aria by Handel, we are meant to prize her superior aesthetic sensibility.
In attempting to prop up Marina as a wronged saint, the film doesn’t fully acknowledge how unsettled or justifiably enraged Orlando’s family might be made by her. They are essentially the villains of the story. In the film’s terms, their hostilities exist because they loathe her strength – a strength they clearly lack. “A Fantastic Woman” trumpets its intentions in its very title. It should not have been necessary to exalt Marina in order to give her passion and turmoil their due. Grade: B (Rated R for language, sexual content, nudity, and a disturbing assault.)