Waitress and aspiring singer Marina (Daniela Vega) is happily in love with the wealthier Orlando (Francisco Reyes, "The Club"), twenty years her senior. When he suddenly falls ill while celebrating her birthday, Marina rushes him to the hospital where an aneurysm cruelly snatches him away. But Marina is in for far more heartbreak when Orlando's family, regarding her transgenderism as perversion, rejects and harasses her, obstructing her grief. Marina finds wells of strength and an outlet in art in "A Fantastic Woman."
Cowriter (with Gonzalo Maza)/director Sebastián Lelio (2013's "Gloria") piles so much abuse upon his central character it is almost too much to take. But in giving her simple human right to grieve a loved one so many cruel obstacles, Lelio and the amazing Vega create such empathy for Marina's plight the film should long be remembered as a milestone for transgender acceptance. While the U.S. continues to argue about transgender people being allowed to use the bathroom matching their sexual identity, Lelio illustrates how alien Marina's presence is in a male sauna, her femininity so evident she draws a long look from the first male she passes despite her attempt to masquerade in her birth gender. That Lelio has directed the film with great artistry makes it one of 2017's standouts. (Chile's submission for the Foreign Language Oscar has won a nomination.)
The film begins not with Marina, but following Orlando as he prepares to celebrate her birthday. At his textile shop, he is frustrated by the misplacement of a white envelope. He heads to the sauna, then later sits admiring the performance of a young woman singing beautifully. This is Marina and Vega and Reyes tells us everything we need to know about this relationship by their respectful physical affection and eyes which see past the surface right on into each other's soul. Marina is delighted by her musical cake and we learn that that envelope held tickets for a trip to Iguazu Falls.
In the middle of the night after their intimate evening, Marina awakens to Orlando sitting on the edge of their bed, distressed. As she rushes about getting ready to take him to the hospital, Orlando collapses at the top of the stairs, bashing his head on the landing. The drive is harrowing, Orlando quietly pleading for Marina to hurry as we watch his life slipping away. When the doctor comes to deliver the news, he's suspicious of the woman before him. When Marina returns from making a phone call in the parking lot, she's greeted by a policeman who demands ID and calls her 'sir.' Orlando's brother Gabo (Luis Gnecco, "Neruda") arrives just in time to take control, treating Marina, 'the young lady,' with gentle kindness. Aside from her female boss, singing instructor and her dog Diabla it will be the only kindness Marina experiences.
At first, Sonia (Aline Kuppenheim), Orlando's ex-wife, plays a facade of consideration, but soon she's demanding Orlando's car be delivered and that Marina vacate his apartment. His son takes her dog. A sexual offense investigator arrives at the restaurant where she works, ostensibly 'concerned' that Marina may have been a hired sexual partner forced to fight off an attacker, but of course, the real story is darker, Orlando's 'unexplained' bruising raising familial accusations (she's later subjected to a humiliating physical examination which again highlights cisgender obsession with her genitalia). Orlando's son Bruno (Nicolás Saavedra) enters her apartment unannounced, rudely asks if she's 'had the operation,' then returns in her absence, leaving a mess. She's denied access to Orlando's wake and funeral and when she shows up anyway, she's thrown out, Bruno and a couple of thugs later forcibly picking her up.
Eventually Marina's fury is unleased as she holds her ground outside the crematorium, attacking Sonia's car and demanding her dog back. For the third time, she sees Orlando, who leads her inside to give her what she's yearned for all along - a proper, loving farewell.
Lelio occasionally steps out of his narrative to visualize Marina's state of mind. She visits her beloved instructor (Sergio Hernández, "Gloria") and his request for her to sing segues into a scene of Marina pushing against an increasing wind. She leads a disco dance in an elaborate costume, Vega challenging us with an intense stare directly into the camera. Mirror imagery is used throughout, splitting Marina in two, separating her from others, or, in one scene, replacing her crotch with her face via a handheld mirror. The film, with its haunted lovers and dynamic use of color, frequently recalls Hitchcock's "Vertigo."
The cast are all notable, Gnecco and Hernández's compassion a tonic for Kuppenheim and Saavedra's increasingly hysterical cruelty. Reyes establishes Orlando so solidly, his ghostly presence continues to haunt the film. But "A Fantastic Woman" is, above all, Vega's film and the transgender actress conveys Marina's guardedness, intelligence, sexuality and enormous capacity for love. In an uncaring world, Vega makes us feel her loss, champion her survival and hope for her future.
Robin gives "A Fantastic Woman" a B+.
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