Hitchcock used to say that if one of his movies was working, you could follow it with the sound off. By the same measure, he’d have approved of this taciturn Chilean character piece. It’s a quietly devastating story of prejudice that often seems to be powered solely via the infinitesimal registers of its lead, startling newcomer (and the country’s first transgender actress) Daniela Vega. You barely need to refer to the subtitles to know what’s going on: it’s written all over her face.
Vega plays Marina Vidal, a trans lounge singer seeing a much older man, printing proprietor Orlando (Francisco Reyes). Their rapport suggests a long-term relationship full of easy certainties and shared realities. But when she sings ‘Your love is like yesterday’s newspaper’ as he watches on at her club, it’s weirdly prophetic. Before the day is out, he’s lying dead on a hospital slab, felled by chest pains and badly bruised by a subsequent fall. Little does she know, but she’ll soon be stripped of her stake in their life together by his grasping, disapproving family – right down to their beloved dog.
Before all that, the cues of a traditional thriller are toyed with in an opening that if not actively Hitchcockian, is at least Hitchcock-ish. A gruff female detective quizzes Marina about Orlando’s death, suspicions raised by her flight from the hospital, as Matthew Herbert’s score helps amp up the brooding atmosphere. Will she have Orlando’s death pinned on her? And what’s in that mysterious locker?
But like the detective’s interrogation, they’re false leads. Director Sebastián Lelio really wants to show us just how fragile Marina’s grip on her life is as a trans person – and he’s found the perfect canvas to do it in Vega. As Marina endures endless attempts to invalidate her, some lazy, some brazen – one cop insists on addressing her as ‘he’; Orlando’s odious son spits ‘I don’t know what you are’ – she puts on a mask of calm that slowly becomes laden with reproach, then alive with defiance. Her refusal to engage with her tormentors, most of them from her lover’s own family, only goads them into more and more brutal actions.
A gripping, chastening study in what it’s like to spend your entire life behind enemy lines, ‘A Fantastic Woman’ offers uplift, too – as well as the odd surreal touch. One joyous, choreographed dance number in a techno club is straight out of the Bob Fosse handbook, while in another funny-sad scene, Marina, finally pushed too far, leaps up and down on a car as Orlando’s relatives cower inside.
Not all of it works – recurring ghostly appearances from the dead Orlando are a hoary narrative device, while Aretha Franklin’s ‘You Make Me Feel Like a Natural Woman’ is a jarring false note on the soundtrack – but all the important moments land. The result is a cry for compassion that marries the fierce conviction of ‘Boys Don’t Cry’ with the defiant self-expression of a Pedro Almodóvar drama: very much a film for our times.