A Fantastic Woman
Time Out says
A cri de coeur for compassion and understanding, this powerful Chilean drama marks the arrival of a bold new talent.
Alfred Hitchcock used to say that if his movie was working, you could follow it with the sound off. By that same measure, he would have approved of this taciturn Chilean character piece: a quietly devastating story of prejudice that often seems powered solely via the infinitesimal nuances of its lead actor, startling newcomer (and the country’s first transgender film star) Daniela Vega. You barely need to read the subtitles to know what’s happening—it’s written all over her face.
Vega plays Marina, a trans lounge singer involved with a much older man, printing-company 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,” it’s weirdly prophetic. Before the day is out, he’s lying in the morgue, felled by chest pains and a tumble down the stairs. She’s unaware she’ll soon be stripped of her stake in their life together, right down to their beloved dog, by his grasping, disapproving family.
Before that, the film toys with the cues of a traditional thriller: A female detective quizzes Marina about Orlando’s death, suspicions raised by the singer’s flight from the hospital. Will they pin Orlando’s death on her? And what’s in that mysterious locker? As Marina endures endless attempts to invalidate her identity—one cop insistently addresses her as “he” and Orlando’s odious son spits “I don’t know what you are”—she wears a mask of calm that slowly becomes alive with defiance.
A gripping, chastening study of what it’s like to spend your entire life behind enemy lines, A Fantastic Woman offers uplift, too, as well as the odd surrealist touch. A joyously choreographed dance number in a techno club is straight out of the Bob Fosse handbook, while in another tragicomic 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 by the dead Orlando are a hoary narrative device, and Aretha Franklin’s “(You Make Me Feel Like) A Natural Woman” is a slightly jarring soundtrack choice. But the key moments land. The result is a cry for compassion that marries the fierce conviction of Boys Don’t Cry with the brazen self-expression of a Pedro Almodóvar drama—and very much a film for our times.
Cast and crew