Chilean film “A Fantastic Woman” is as fantastic as it can be as a melodrama which goes all the way along with its transgender heroine. While there are lots of painful moments as she struggles with many difficulties besides her deep grief and sexual identity, she does not step back at all, and it is often touching to see how she keeps trying to be herself as usual despite all the inhospitality and humiliation thrown upon her.
The movie opens with her boyfriend Orlando (Francisco Reyes) having a rest in a spa, and we get to know a bit about him as he tries to find something after he gets out of the spa. He is a middle-aged man who has run a textile company, and he is looking for a gift he bought in advance for his transgender girlfriend Marina (Daniela Vega), a young restaurant waitress who also works as a nightclub singer during nighttime.
Although Orlando cannot find the gift before he comes to the nightclub where Marina works, Marina does not mind that at all, and they soon go to a Chinese restaurant for their own happy private time. While Orlando is old enough to be her father, neither their age difference nor Marina’s sexual identity matters in their relationship, and Marina has actually lived with him and his dog in his cozy apartment.
However, their happiness is shattered by an unexpected incident. While they try to have a sex shortly after they come back to their apartment, Orlando suddenly suffers a severe case of aneurysm, and he also falls down along the stair when Marina tries to take him to a nearby hospital. When they finally arrive in the hospital, Orlando is nearly unconscious, and Marina is devastated when a doctor later comes to her and then notifies her of Orlando’s death.
As Marina tries to deal with this sudden loss, a policeman approaches to her because Orlando’s death looks rather suspicious due to the injuries caused by his fall, and he does not show any respect or courtesy to her at all. For instance, he does not accept her present name, and he also demands her to give him her old identification card showing her former male identity.
When a female detective from the Special Victims Unit comes to Marina on the next day, the situation becomes more exasperating for Marina. The detective casually and condescendingly assumes that Marina is a victim or a suspect, and she throws several insensitive questions at her. While naturally becoming more exasperated, Marina keeps her temper down as much as she can, but the circumstance only becomes more difficult for her. At one point later in the story, the detective virtually forces her to be naked in front of a camera just because she needs to confirm officially that Marina is not a sexual abuse victim, and that is one of the most hurtful and infuriating moments in the film.
And there are Orlando’s family members, most of whom have been not so pleased with Orlando’s relationship with Marina. While Orlando’s brother Gabo (Luis Gnecco) is a little sympathetic to Marina, Orlando’s ex-wife Sonia (Aline Küppenheim) is harsh and cruel to Marina just because she still does not get over the fact that her ex-husband left her for Marina, and she even forbids Marina to attend Orlando’s funeral while calling Marina ‘chimera’. Like Sonia, Orlando’s son Bruno (Nicolás Saavedra) also wants Marina to go away from their life as soon as possible, and they demand that Marina should leave Orlando’s apartment within a few days.
Now this is indeed a quintessential melodrama setup, and the movie is willing hurls its heroine into a series of stylish moments to accentuate strong emotions churning inside her. While there is a striking moment of violence when Marina happens to be confronted by Bruno and two other family members, there is also a noirish sequence unfolded within Orlando’s frequent spa, and we get a couple of lovely fantasy moments which reflect Marina’s resilient personality. The soundtrack of the movie is as bold as its visual style, and you may smile when Aretha Franklin’s “(You Make Me Feel Like) A Natural Woman” is played on the soundtrack in one brief scene.
Above all, the movie is supported well by the superb performance from its lead actress. As a transgender actress, Daniela Vega surely brings considerable natural qualities to her character, and she also did a tremendous job of presenting a vivid, complex character on the screen. As her character is frequently placed at the center of the screen, the movie lets us face and then accept who she is, and Vega is simply magnificent as effortlessly conveying her character’s dynamic emotional status to us.
“A Fantastic Woman”, which won three awards including the Silver Bear award for Best Screenplay at the Berlin International Film Festival and was recently Oscar-nominated for Best Foreign Language Film, is directed by Sebastián Lelio, who previously impressed me and other audiences with “Gloria” (2013), a wonderful drama film about one plain middle-aged divorced woman who tries to find her own way to live and feel happy. In both “Gloria” and “A Fantastic Woman”, Lelio shows that he is a skillful filmmaker who is very good at making sensitive and thoughtful drama film with refreshing aspects, and I think we can have some expectation on his two upcoming films which would be released during this year.