A groundbreaking work in more ways than one, Chilean director Sebastián Lelio’s fifth film is a powerful and heartbreaking piece that features a towering central performance. It stars Daniela Vega, who will become the first transgender actress to present an award at the Oscars this coming Sunday, when A Fantastic Woman will compete in the Best Foreign Language Movie category. These are, of course, watershed issues, but that shouldn’t distract from her work here under Lelio’s guidance.
She plays ender Marina, a transgender Santiago waitress and aspiring singer, who is dating Orlando (Francisco Reyes), a 57 year-old textile executive. But when he suffers a sudden and fatal aneurysm, it’s a crushing body blow for Marina, made worse by the humiliating and cruel events that are to follow. At this hospital, she suffers embarrassment when a doctor addresses 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.
Marina is treated with even more disdain by Orlando’s family who clearly do not approve of his choice in partner. His son Bruno (Nicolas Saavedra) wants her out of his father’s apartment and his ex-wife Sonia (Aline Küppenheim) offers her money to disappear. It’s a tough watch at times, not least in one scene where she’s bundled into a car and subjected to threats and intimidation. But there’s hope to, with Lelio deploying music like Aretha Franklin’s ‘(You Make Me Feel Like) A Natural Woman’ to rouse the spirits.
It’s certainly not a dour experience. Lelio, who previously explored the second coming of a middle-aged divorcee in Gloria (a film he just remade in English with Julianne Moore), proves what a sensitive and strong-minded director he is. There’s nothing flashy about A Fantastic Woman, but there are moments of pure poetry – like Marina imagining herself in a glitzy dance number. Of course, the star of the show is Daniela Vega, who deserves to find roles outside of Chile. This is a marvellous breakthrough, and one that will be remembered long after the Oscars are over.
A Fantastic Woman opens in cinemas on 2 March. For more information, click here.
1. Daniela Vega in A Fantastic Woman.