The title of A Fantastic Woman, the Oscar-nominated new film from Chilean filmmaker Sebastián Lelio (Gloria), never gets spoken aloud, but it doesn’t have to. It’s the under-the-surface assertion of everything Marina (Daniela Vega), the film’s young transgender protagonist, says and does — the way she carries herself, the way she talks to others, and the way she talks about herself when talking back to others who see her differently. She is a fantastic woman, even if the world doesn’t always see her that way.
As the film opens, one person clearly does agree. Orlando (Francisco Reyes), a fifty-something Santiago businessman goes about his day, visiting a spa, tending to business and then ending his evening in a club where he’s hypnotized by Marina’s singing. They, we soon learn, know each other quite well. And after spending the evening together talking about plans for an upcoming vacation they return to the apartment they share, make love, then go to sleep. It’s seemingly just another memorable evening in a happy relationship, but it ends badly: Orlando wakes up with a headache and falls down some stairs before Marina can rush him to the hospital where he dies.
Marina soon finds her life thrown into chaos. She’s viewed with suspicion by the hospital and the police, who ask what kind of relationship they had. Even a seemingly sympathetic inspector brings her worst assumptions to the case, barely hiding her prejudices when she says, “I know perfectly well what happens to people, sorry, women like you.” In time, her interest turns into insistence, as Marina finds herself pulled into the police station and forced to disrobe as part of the investigation, submitting to the violation of her privacy in an attempt to prove her innocence.
At this point it looks pretty obvious where A Fantastic Woman is headed, becoming a story of an innocent woman accused of a crime she didn’t commit. Then it doesn’t. This happens again, when Marina clash’s with Orlando’s family, including an ex-wife who calls her a “chimera” and a son who threatens her and later starts to make some of those threats real. But then, again, Lelio steers the film away from its obvious path and toward an unknown destination.
Ultimately, though it doesn’t shy away from depicting Marina’s vulnerabilities, this is a film more about perseverance than victimhood. And persevering requires a lot of steel and savvy. The film stays close to Marina as she’s forced to figure out how to deal with each new person she encounters, sizing them up, considering where they stand with her and what they think of her identity, sometimes having to read between the lines to find a hidden agenda. Lelio skillfully puts viewers in Marina’s shoes as others look at her with puzzlement, or worse. Just walking down the street requires careful attention and a keen eye for threats.
Vega’s remarkable as Marina. Her character never opens up to anyone, but Vega skillfully conveys an inner life governed by sadness and a will for self-preservation. Open and charming in the film’s opening scenes, Marina barely smiles after Orlando’s death, pushing forward while doing her best to hide her heartbreak. A few nicely staged fantasy sequences provide some hints of her thoughts, but the film’s power mostly comes from Vega’s subtle work and Lelio’s commitment to telling her story by staying close by her side as she navigates a world seemingly determined to push her away from the life she wants to live and keep her from the place she knows to be her own.
A Fantastic Woman opens in limited release Friday, February 2 before expanding.