After his prize-winning 2013 movie Gloria, an exuberant portrayal of a free-spirited, middle-aged divorcee living in Santiago, acclaimed Chilean director Sebastián Lelio returns with his glorious new film, A Fantastic Woman. Produced by Jackie and Toni Erdmann’s directors, Pablo Larraín and Maren Ade, it tells the story of Marina Vidal, a transgender singer, who is left in shock after the sudden death of her partner.
Nominated for a Golden Globe for Best Foreign Language Film, having already claimed a Silver Bear for Best Screenplay at the Berlin Film Festival, the film has drawn comparisons to Pedro Almodóvar at his finest and stars Daniela Vega, surely destined to become cinema’s first major transgender star. Hers is a knockout performance of great empathy and sensitivity, in a story that chimes perfectly with current hot-button debates about gender and identity.
It begins in earnest with Vega’s late-20s Marina singing in a nightclub. She’s with her partner Orlando (Francisco Reyes), a 57-year-old textile executive who was once married but is now clearly, passionately enamoured with the much younger Marina. Yet that night, Orlando suffers a fatal aneurysm. To add to the horror, he stumbles down some stairs as he collapses, causing injuries to his body as he falls.
Initially, Lelio toys with us, hinting that maybe Marina might be suspected of foul play in Orlando’s death, but really it’s just a diversionary tactic to get us to the hospital, where Marina is treated with prejudice by a doctor who insists on addressing her by her male birth name. A female detective (Amparo Noguera) from the Sexual Offenses Investigation Unit then subjects her to a degrading physical inspection.
Worse is to come, with Orlando’s family barely hiding their contempt for her. It’s made clear that she’s not welcome at the funeral; Orlando’s son, Bruno (Nicolás Saavedra), wants her out of his father’s apartment; and Orlando’s ex-wife, Sonia (Aline Küppenheim), offers her cash to disappear. It’s cold and cruel: a grief-stricken Marina is left to pick up the pieces of her shattered life in the face of an indifferent society that has no time for those on the margins.
Yet what really makes A Fantastic Woman fly are the sumptuous visuals, which turn this from being a hard-hitting slice of social realism into something more dream-like, right from the opening image of the stunning Iguazu Falls on the Argentine-Brazilian border. Using music such as Aretha Franklin’s (You Make Me Feel Like) A Natural Woman – a cue that could sound cheap, but not here – the result is resoundingly cinematic. Lelio, who has since completed forthcoming English-language movie Disobedience with Rachel Weisz, deserves much praise for crafting a moving and compassionate work.