When the title character of Sebastián Lelio’s A Fantastic Woman first appears onscreen, she seems poised to live up to the movie’s billing of her: Marina (Daniela Vega) is singing a sultry cabaret song in a dimly lit bar, dressed beautifully and sensuously and eyeing her distinguished (and much older) boyfriend Orlando (Francisco Reyes). But all of that confidence and security is shaken just a short time later, when Orlando wakes up in the middle of the night feeling ill, and dies only a few minutes after Marina gets him to a hospital. Left without the person who cared for her the most, Marina finds herself at the mercy of Orlando’s family, who view this transgender woman as a freak and an interloper who doesn’t deserve their respect.
The movie aims to give Marina the respect that most of Orlando’s family denies her, and while Lelio doesn’t shy away from depicting the unpleasant, humiliating treatment to which his heroine is often subjected, he makes sure to show her in her moments of triumph as well, even if none of them quite match the casual confidence and comfort of her initial appearance. Without any legal connection to Orlando, Marina is forced to give up the car she’s been driving and the apartment she’s been living in, and while Orlando’s brother Gabo (Luis Gnecco) is sympathetic to her situation, Orlando’s adult son and ex-wife both treat Marina as if she’s some sort of subhuman parasite.
Although Lelio sometimes gets a little heavy-handed with his focus on Marina’s marginalized identity (at one point her car stereo blasts Aretha Franklin’s “(You Make Me Feel Like) A Natural Woman” as she drives around town), he takes care to portray her as a fully realized character and not just a representative of an oppressed minority. There’s a sense of family history in the casual banter between Marina and her sister, who takes Marina in after she has to vacate the apartment she shared with Orlando, and the scenes between Marina and her vocal instructor show her dedication to music as something far more serious than just a means to make extra tips. When Marina has to endure a demeaning physical examination by the police to prove that there was no abuse in her relationship with Orlando, the audience’s anguish and outrage comes not just from witnessing such indifferently inhumane treatment, but also from seeing that treatment directed at a character who’s sympathetic and grounded.
Even when Lelio’s treatment of Marina’s situation can be clumsy, Vega’s powerful performance adds authenticity and empathy. She’s just as fascinating to watch during a disco-style fantasy dance number as she is during the quiet scenes of domestic drama. As he did in 2013’s Gloria (also a submission from Chile for the Best Foreign Language Film Oscar), Lelio takes the kind of female character who might have a minimal presence in another kind of movie and puts her front and center, giving careful consideration to her complex emotions. Marina’s identity may be more politically fraught than that of the older divorcée at the center of Gloria, but it’s no less emotionally resonant.