By Liam Lacey
Though the Chilean drama A Fantastic Woman has earned an Oscar nomination for best foreign film, the more appropriate category would be in best actress category. Without writing off the fine professionalism of Frances, Soirse, Sally et al, it’s hard to compare them to the nuanced, charismatic, and — why not? — fantastic turn by the star Daniela Vega.
We first meet Vega as Marina, a big-eyed, sultry singer performing with a lounge band in a Santiago hotel, crooning a wry salsa standard, "Our love is like yesterday's newspaper."
From the audience, she is avidly watched by a bespectacled white-haired man (her father? the old news of the song?). Later, Marina and the older man, Orlando (Francis Reyes) head out to a Chinese restaurant together where dinner is followed by a birthday cake. Orlando hands Marina an envelope, with a receipt for tickets for a trip together to the famed natural wonder Iguaza Falls, which we have glimpsed briefly in the opening shot of the film. It is, apparently, intended as a sort of honeymoon trip. The couple are soon embracing on the balcony of an apartment; her top slides down.
The mood says film noir but it's a red herring. About 20 minutes into this film, there's a death, but no crime: Orlando, has woken up in the night feeling peculiar and Marina rushes him to the hospital as he slips into unconsciousness. One shock is followed by another. Through the suspicious and hostile reaction of the police and doctors, the audience understand that Marina is a transgender woman.
For the rest of the film she endures a concentrated dose of transphobic insults, physical abuse, and police harassment. Like the director's previous film, Gloria (2013) — the study of a middle-aged woman and her affair with a man she meets at a disco — A Fantastic Woman is ultimately a celebration of an unconventional and irrepressible protagonist.
Sebastián Lelio deserves full credit for finding Vega, a musical performer in her first movie. This is a performance replete with micro-expressions and small gestures that communicate big feelings: unease, determination, sensuality, slow-burning rage, and blissful joy. The performance deserves extra credit for the degree of difficulty in what is often a precariously unsteady melodrama.
On its most mundane and most successful level, A Fantastic Woman is about the aftermath of a messy family break-up and death. Orlando's death compels Marina to meet his family, including his violently hostile adult son Bruno (Nicolás Saavedra), and his former wife (Alina Küppenheim), who treats her as a distasteful thing. ("When I look at you, I don't know what I'm seeing.") Marina stoically accepts most of their demands, as they claim Orlando's apartment and his car. But she finally draws the line at who gets to keep the dog and whether she can grieve her loss by attending the visitation and the funeral.
Generally less successful is the way Lelio wraps the story in the trappings of a Hitchcockian suspense thriller — a dogged detective, a kidnapping, a mysterious key, paranoid hallucinations, a jangly ominous electronic score. It’s as if Hitchcock's Vertigo is his model for a study in gender dysphoria. To demonstrate Marina’s self-consciousness about her appearance, the film surrounds her with anxiety-causing mirrors. At one point, workmen carry a piece of reflecting glass across the sidewalk, literally barring her way with her own image. Late in the film, the camera pans down Marina's naked body toward her groin to reveal… a make-up mirror in her lap.
This feels less psychologically astute than an exercise in peekaboo fetishism, and that isn’t Lelio’s only occasional maladroit step. There are also a couple of pop video fantasy sequences (Marina walking at an impossible angle against the wind; Marina defying gravity on the dance floor) that are a good argument for putting a tax on slo-mo inspirational sequences. I give Lelio a pass on the dicey choice of using Aretha Franklin’s version of “(You Make Me A Feel) Like a Natural Woman,” a decision so blunt, it’s legitimately provocative. What exactly is a “natural woman” anyway?
These reservations aside, you can’t keep a great performance down, and Vega brings a real power and torch-song majesty to Marina's story. Through her mostly reactive, effortlessly mercurial, performance, she shows how creativity is born in those fearful moments when life refuses to provide us with a script.
A footnote on the Academy Awards: Though the Oscar’s traditional division of male and female acting doesn’t seem logical (is there an award for best female sound mixing?) I suspect there would be Olympics-style resistance to the nomination of a transgender actor, as opposed to several actors who have been nominated for cross-gender performances. This year’s Oscars did see a transgender breakthrough with the nomination of the documentary Strong Island by trans-male director, Yance Ford. Previously, transgender woman songwriter Anoni (Antony and the Johnsons) earned an Original Song nomination in 2016 and the late transgender composer, Angela Morley, received nominations twice, for The Little Prince (1974) and The Slipper and the Rose (1976).
A Fantastic Woman. Directed by Sebastián Lelio. Screenplay by Sebastián Lelio and Gonzalo Maza. Starring Daniela Vega, Francisco Reyes, Aline Kuppenheim, Nicolas Saavedra. Opens February 9 in Toronto, February 16 in Montreal and throughout the winter in other cities.