‘A Fantastic Woman’ delivers an engrossing, transgender character study
In an early scene in Chilean director Sebastián Lelio's "A Fantastic Woman," performing on stage, the transgender, sultry nightclub singer Marina flirts with Orlando, her older lover and partner. They return to their apartment, make love and go to sleep before a medical emergency initiates the tragedy Marina will face and the treatment she'll contend with from Orlando's family.
In this profound study of grief, because Marina is a transgender woman, she must also cope with the micro and macro aggressions directed at her by the medical community, the police, investigating detectives, and, above all, Orlando's ex-wife and son. As in his earlier film "Gloria," Lelio demonstrates a solid, remarkable grasp of his central female character, capturing Marina's interior life through her exterior actions and reactions. He co-wrote the screenplay along with Gonzalo Maza, but credit also goes to Daniela Vega whom Lelio and Maza consulted for accurate representation. Impressed, they hired Vega to play Marina which she does with dazzling charisma.
Avoiding all melodrama, Lelio emphasizes the dignity and strength of this vulnerable yet resilient woman. Minimalist in its focus on Marina, this engrossing, character-driven film reveals a tender and strong love that sustains Marina, literally anchoring every scene, often in the center of the frame.
Stylistically, Lelio effects a naturalistic approach that effortlessly integrates moments of magical realism and fantasy. Every element of the art direction metaphorically expresses themes: numerous reflections and mirrors; music and song choices; lighting emphasizing reds, yellows, or blues; the use of water (as in "The Shape of Water" it signifies love bestowing its beauty in shapes) beginning with Iguazu Falls in the opening credits; confining spaces despite an abundance of windows and glass; and the windstorm that tests but can't defeat Marina's strength.
Lelio has written that he invites his audience to explore the limits of their empathy and spiritual elasticity. His invitation is beautiful and poignant. Among many other nominations and awards, "A Fantastic Woman" earned a place among this year's five nominees for the Best Foreign Film Oscar. In Spanish with English subtitles, at Landmark's Tivoli Cinema.