An engaging, class-conscious Tantalus myth in which the condemned’s only crime is her existence, the Chilean drama A Fantastic Woman subjects its twentysomething trans heroine, Marina Vidal (Daniela Vega), to a battery of indignities as grief and closure remain out of her reach, the frustration underscored by writer-director Sebastián Lelio’s romanticism. A classically trained singer who waits tables in between the occasional gig, Marina is no shrinking violet, and she seems to have her share of loving friends and relatives. But after her doting, middle-aged boyfriend, Orlando (Francisco Reyes), dies suddenly of an aneurysm—on her birthday, no less—her every move falls under scrutiny. The cops think she’s a sex worker, the hospital staff keep asking her about her “real name,” and Orlando’s largely estranged family doesn’t want her at the funeral. Lelio’s social critique is blunt but compelling. Repeatedly sidelining his heroine’s emotional arc, he shows how these small infringements add up to a denial of a basic right—the right of a protagonist to keeping their own story moving forward.
We get the sense that none of this is news to Marina. She bears every insult with a look of dispirited composure, whether it’s a vice-squad detective subjecting her to a medical examination or Orlando’s ex-wife (Aline Küppenheim) insisting that she surrender the keys to his Volvo station wagon. The only member of Orlando’s family who treats Marina like a human being (or consistently refers to her as a woman) is his gentle brother, Gabo (Luis Gnecco). But his meekness only condones the behavior of the others, which builds from snobbery into outright physical intimidation and violence.
This gauntlet of social cruelty and bourgeois spite owes a sizable debt to the celebrated melodramas of Rainer Werner Fassbinder—Ali: Fear Eats The Soul, for example. But despite a similar taste for convoluted, symbolically loaded mirror compositions, Lelio doesn’t share the dangerously prolific German director’s Brechtian hard edges; shot in poised anamorphic widescreen and scored to eerie strings (courtesy of Matthew Herbert), A Fantastic Woman hews closer to both conventional realism and sentimentalism.
This doesn’t always sit well with some of the characterizations—but, then again, bigots in real life have a tendency to come across like one-dimensional caricatures, too. There are moments of outright fantasy, the most striking of which is a Buster Keaton-like image of Marina walking down a windy street. But like Lelio’s breakthrough film, Gloria, A Fantastic Woman is at its most compelling as a conventional character study of an unconventional female lead. Plotting is not its strong suit; it gets repetitive and washy in later stretches. But that’s also (sort of) the point. Trans characters played by trans actors like Vega are a rarity, but so are trans characters defined by more than gender. In a tricky gambit, Lelio makes Marina’s identity as a trans woman a non-issue for the first 15 minutes of A Fantastic Woman—we see her at first from Orlando’s point of view, singing at a nightclub gig—only to have it badger and bully its way into nearly every scene that follows. In a better world, the immediate aftermath of Orlando’s death would be the first act, perhaps the beginning of a story about Marina dealing with a profound loss, moving on, trying to start over, and so on. In a world that still treats this character’s identity as a form of imposture, it’s a whole film.