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All films demand observation, but few fiction films have characters who realize they are being watched. The hero of A Fantastic Woman, Chile’s official selection for Best Foreign Film, is keenly aware of how others look at her. Just from a glance or stare, she can feel admired, celebrated, embarrassed, or even humiliated. Sometimes she stares directly into the camera, provocatively breaking the fourth wall. Directed and co-written by Sebastián Lelio, this film is a straightforward drama—with flourishes of surreal imagery—that’s anchored by a star-making performance. You cannot take your eyes off Daniela Vega, and you may even get the uncanny sense she does not want you to.
A few minutes pass before Vega first appears on the screen. Until then, we follow Orlando (Francisco Reyes), a middle-aged man, as he goes through his routine. He walks into a nightclub, where Vega sings and dances on the stage. Her character is Marina, and she is Orlando’s lover. They are celebrating this evening because it is Orlando’s birthday. Later that night, he does not feel well. He collapses, so Marina rushes him to the hospital, and he is pronounced dead shortly afterward. But before Marina can start grieving, she has to deal with some nosy questions from the hospital staff. These questions sound routine, yet there is a needling cruelty to them, too. Like Daniela Vega, Marina is transgender, and seemingly everyone wants her to impugn her identity.
A Fantastic Woman is all about the fallout over Orlando’s death. Before Marina, Orlando had a wife and adult children. Needless to say, they do not approve of Orlando’s current lifestyle, so when his ex-wife and son turn up, brusque interactions with Marina devolve into outright hostility. The script by Lelio and Gonzalo Maza blur the line between prejudice, frustration, and grief: It is unclear whether Orlando’s family hates Marina for who she is, what she represents, or simply because they need an outlet for their emotions.
There is also a police investigation: Orlando fell down the stairs before he arrived at the hospital, and a detective suspects foul play. We know Marina is innocent, and the film follows one harrowing ordeal after another. She keeps it together through a mix of pride and the ability to face the burden of everyone haphazardly denying her an opportunity to feel anything. By the time a forensic technician photographs Marina’s naked body, the intrusion feels like everyone is conspiring against her.
Through shrewd directing choices, Lelio prevents this material from getting too maudlin. Most of the actors have understated performances, as if guarding their true feelings. What is even more effective, however, are exaggerated sequences that mirror Marina’s mental state. After a crushing conversation, she walks along a city street, with the wind pushing against her so hard she stands at a 45-degree angle. Then there is a moment when Marina wanders into a nightclub, desperate for affection, and the evening converges into a synchronized dance sequence. She practically leaps into a close-up, announcing her desire to be regarded with the beauty she feels within.
This is not an “issue” film, with Marina serving as an avatar for transgender civil rights. Instead, her identity effectively serves as empathy barometer for the men and women she meets. Many folks are kind, but some treat her with disdain and hostility. Even the semblance of tolerance can be cruel: The detective explains to her colleague what pronouns she prefers, and she speaks about Marina like she is a child. Marina endures because she knows who she is, and will not compromise for anyone. Vega gives a heroic performance, and even when she sobs bitterly, the overall impression is that your pity is the last thing she wants.
On top of the dance sequences, A Fantastic Woman gives Vega several opportunities to sing. She is a gifted vocalist, equally comfortable with popular tunes and a haunting aria. Each song reflects Marina’s outlook on life: The melodrama of opera coupled with the indignities of her personal life are like a grim joke. Pushed beyond the point of grieving, Marina has no recourse but to take matters into her own hands, in a way that an opera heroine might appreciate. By the end of A Fantastic Woman, Marina sings with poise and perseverance. We know what she means when she looks into the camera, even if the film does not provide her any subtitles.
A Fantastic Woman opens Friday at Landmark E Street Cinema and Angelika Film Center Mosaic.