In the tense but hearty Chilean drama A Fantastic Woman, actress Daniela Vega plays a transwoman, Marina, who must navigate life after the death of her lover. But no matter what trials Marina must face going it alone in a city either hostile toward or simply confused by the nuances of gender identity, director Sebastian Lelio refuses to paint her as a simple victim, bucking the prevailing assumption that a transwoman at the center of a film must necessarily be a tragic figure.
In the early scenes, Marina is adored and cherished by an older man, Orlando (Francisco Reyes), who watches her in the nightclub where she sings with metaphorical hearts in his eyes. The two live a humble, happy existence in coupledom, sharing his apartment, caring for his dog — but Marina has no idea how dependent on Orlando she is until he suffers sudden chest pains and she must rush him to the hospital. Once the two are separated by the surgery room doors, Marina seems to understand her life of happiness and security is already dissipating.
A doctor delivers the news that Orlando is dead and questions Marina about a bruise on his head — sustained from a fall as she was helping him get to the hospital. But she knows people will be skeptical of her story. Marina then slips into survival mode, and Vega’s performance is so kinetic, here, that we can almost see the blood pulsing furiously through her body as Marina digests that her safety is now threatened. She becomes animal-like, a cat, her wide eyes assessing her surroundings, and then we watch her calculate the next steps to take: Call Orlando’s friend to let him know he is dead, leave Orlando’s car where it is (so as not to be accused of theft), run (so as not to be questioned about that bruise).
This is the first of multiple transformation scenes Vega must carry, and each is unique and moving, the physicality of her performance the most intriguing element of this film. Marina’s oscillating comfort and discomfort in her body is a story told without words. In a later scene, she is confronting Orlando’s legal wife Sonia (Aline Kuppenheim), who refuses to let Marina attend his funeral.
The wife is in a car, driving away from Orlando’s burial spot, and Marina suddenly pulls her shoulders back to stand tall and then launches herself onto the hood with the spry power of a mountain lion, staring down her prey through the windshield. It’s a triumphant moment, one of several that may set you cheering for Marina — though these are outnumbered by ones that will leave you feeling more squeamish.
After Orlando dies, a detective who sees herself as a do-gooder, Adriana (Amparo Noguera), won’t leave Marina alone, assuming that Orlando had sexually abused her. She can’t see Marina as anything but a victim, an inadvertent insult as stinging as any intentional one. Adriana subjects Marina to an excruciating body examination, and it’s here where Lelio’s film really departs from others depicting the trials of transwomen. A Fantastic Woman shows that the obvious insults a transperson may endure will, of course, weigh on the psyche, but the death by a thousand well-meaning cuts hurts as well.