In one of the lovely moments in “A Fantastic Woman,” a film by the Chilean director Sebastian Lelio, the protagonist, Marina Vidal, finds herself in front of a large mirror being carried by two workers on the street. Her reflection shifts unstably in the mirror, like a wave cresting in the wind. The motion and the instability – which also appear in another scene, in which Marina struggles in the street against a gusting wind – do not represent Marina herself, who knows exactly who she is, but the forces that impel the society around her. That society finds it difficult to cope with the illusory feeling inherent in the fact that Marina is a transgender woman, given the way that identity is reflected in the mirror society holds up to her.
In Lelio’s film, which won the Oscar for Best Foreign Language Film on Sunday, Marina (Daniela Vega) undergoes a crisis that compels her to confront society’s attitude toward her at both the private and the establishment levels. Marina, who is in her twenties, is a singer who possesses classic talents and appears in clubs while earning a living as a waitress. She is the partner of Orlando, 57 (Francisco Reyes), who left his wife and family for her.
This is a love story, and in the few scenes that show Marina and Orlando together the director succeeds in conveying the intense emotional essence that prevails between them. But their connection is abruptly severed shortly after the movie begins, when Orlando suffers a brain aneurysm during their time together.
“A Fantastic Woman” depicts vividly the establishment’s attitude toward Marina in the wake of Orlando’s death, initially in the hospital and afterward at the hands of a policewoman from the sex offenses department. The approach of the physician and the police officer is gentle, even empathetic to a certain degree, though also formal. Primarily, though, it reflects their difficulty in knowing how to treat Marina, whose ID still lists her as male. For example, how should she be addressed – in the masculine or the feminine? Marina also undergoes humiliation in one of the film’s powerful scenes, when she is required to have her photograph taken in the nude at a police station.
What drives the plot of the film, more than the establishment’s attitude toward Marina after Orlando’s death, is his family’s treatment of her. Although Orlando’s family kept their distance from him while he was alive, after his death they lay a proprietary claim to his person and to the mourning for him. One of the sources of the film’s intelligence stems from its avoidance of melodramatics. It does not deal with the storm that must have erupted when Orlando told his wife (Aline Kuppenheim) that he was having an affair with Marina, and left her. When his son Bruno (Nicolas Saavedra) demands, with hostility and even repulsion toward Marina, that she immediately vacate the apartment in which she lived with Orlando, Marina understands that what he is asking is fair, and doesn’t resist.
The film’s social milieu is that of the affluent Santiago bourgeoisie. Lelio documents well the restraint and the chilly politesse that characterizes this society, which is interested above all in its self-image. In Orlando’s family there is only one character who accepts Marina – his brother Gabo (Luis Gnecco), who perhaps longs for love of the kind his brother had. But he too is revealed to be a salient representative of the class he belongs to.
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Despite everything, Marina insists on her right to mourn Orlando. Lelio (who in 2014 directed another fine film, “Gloria,” about a 58-year-old divorcee’s process of self-liberation), together with his co-writer, Gonzalo Maza, vividly portrays Marina’s resilience and vulnerability, as well as her state of consciousness following Orlando’s death. This includes scenes of hallucination, in which Marina sees her dead lover and also imagines herself as a glamorous pop star. These scenes fit well into the feeling of illusion that the film seeks to convey at different levels.
Lelio paints “A Fantastic Woman” in soft and bold colors alike, which match his cinematic vision, and he makes sophisticated use of music. Marina’s voice is a thematic element in the film because she uses it to perform both pop music and a classical aria; the difference between the two voices contributes to the equivocal atmosphere that pervades the movie. This feeling reaches its peak in the surprising and impressive ending, which weaves together all the concrete, imaginary and symbolic threads that crisscross the film and lend the adjective “fantastic” its different meanings.
That adjective also suits the performance of Daniela Vega (who is in fact also a classical singer), without whom Lelio’s film would not be what it is. Her beautiful, expressive face shapes the picture’s heart and soul. The movie's main power derives from the fact that, with the aid of the smart script and Vega’s performance, it does not just tell the story of a trans woman in a conservative society, which would have lent it a modicum of importance. “A Fantastic Woman” is above all the story of a woman who loves, loses her love and fights for the universal human right to experience her loss and mourn for it, so that she will be able to get on with her life. It thus joins the quite short list of movies that deal with mourning for a lover judiciously, intelligently and lucidly.