A Fantastic Woman, the Chilean drama that just won the Oscar for Best Foreign Film, features an extraordinary performance in the lead role and a quietly convoluted story that prizes gradual revelations of character over any of the twists in its potentially melodramatic plot.
The title character is a transgender singer named Marina Vidal, and she’s played by a transgender actress, Daniela Vega. Marina is immersed in a passionate affair with an older man, Orlando (Francisco Reyes), a textile executive who has left his family and moved into an apartment with Marina.
The morning after a night of romance with Marina, Orlando collapses and soon dies in the emergency room to which Marina rushes him. The authorities are suspicious, Orlando’s wife and adult children are hostile and Marina is caught in the limbo of a transgender person whose outdated ID papers say she’s a male.
Writer-director Sebastian Lelio (whose remarkable Gloria played here a few years back) keeps a sympathetic focus on Marina/Daniela throughout and uses the film’s seemingly provocative story angles—gender bias, social prejudice, that “suspicious” death, etc.—not for their political or melodramatic potential but rather as challenges for Marina and as vivid foils for the evolving portrait and fully emerging identity of that eponymous “fantastic woman” and the very real person she’s becoming.
A big part of what is especially appealing and powerful in Lelio’s film comes of his overall even-keeled approach to story material that could too easily have been given over to sensationalism and sermonizing. We get clear-eyed views of the slights, indignities and outrages suffered by the protagonist, and yet Marina is neither victim nor avenging rebel
The film seems to view the various members of Orlando’s family with rough honesty and a kind of compassion. It’s rather as if Marina grows less confused about herself and her role in the world while she’s also becoming clearer about the confusions others feel toward her. Marina’s persistence and resilience are such that there’s no need to announce her eventual arrival at something like heroic status.
Daniela Vega’s Marina seems both sharply focused and brilliantly mercurial, a person for all seasons. Francisco Reyes’ Orlando is suave, avuncular and aroused. Aline Kuppenheim is well-mannered and viperish as Orlando’s wife. Amparo Noguera is corrosively stoical as the female detective who “investigates” Marina.
Orlando’s brother Gabo (Luis Gnecco) and Marina’s vocal coach (Sergio Hernandez) provide further variations on avuncular coaxing and dismay. Marina’s sister Wanda (Trinidad Gonzalez) and her husband, Gaston (Nestor Cantillana), stand in funky, heartening contrast to Orlando’s wife and his surly, flummoxed son (Nicolas Saavedra).
Lelio starts off with a grand image of Iguazu Falls (the happy couple’s wished-for destination), and later summons up some hurricane-like winds to (almost) impede Marina’s relentless forward progress. Musically, there are apposite invocations of Aretha Franklin’s “Natural Woman” and lyric opera (with Vega doing her own singing there, as well as in the earlier nightclub sequence).