As one of the few Oscar winners that I actually agreed with this year, I’m happy to say that a fantastic film will be opening at Fine Arts this week. Chilean director Sebastián Lelio gets what many filmmakers seem to miss about LGBT representation — namely, that gender identity is a fact of life and not a story in and of itself — and that leaves his latest feature, A Fantastic Woman, in somewhat rarefied company.
While films like Boys Don’t Cry or The Danish Girl have mined the trans experience for fetishized awards bait starring cisgendered performers, Lelio instead prudently cast transgender singer and TV star Daniela Vega, who delivers a riveting performance. As Marina Vidal, a waitress and nightclub chanteuse whose wealthy older boyfriend Orlando (Fransisco Reyes) dies unexpectedly, Vega imparts a remarkable degree of pathos and relatability to a narrative that revels in its De Sica-esque sense of improbable tragedy. That Marina’s boyfriend dies, and that his family has a big problem with her is believable enough. That he dies on her birthday, that they steal her dog, that they physically accost her for attending her lover’s funeral — these are the kinds of story beats that delve into a kind of heightened emotional reality.
That sense of subtle expressionism is what Lelio is going for here, and he manages to get his point without the slightest sense of sanctimony or sermonizing. As the audience is brought further into accord with Marina’s plight, greater insight into her internal landscape is revealed, and Lelio accomplishes all of this through cinematic means. A fantasy sequence that plays like Busby Berkeley in a gay bar, a walk up an implausibly windy hill that could have been lifted from Keaton or Tati — these gambits could have come across as a function of style over substance had Lelio not so expertly laid the narrative groundwork and were Vega not presenting them so convincingly.
The triumph of A Fantastic Woman is not in its examination of irrational bigotry, but in its depiction of a human being fighting to live her own truth in defiance of a cruel and indifferent world. It’s no great shock that Orlando’s family is full of intolerant jerks or that his brother Gabo (Luis Gnecco) is sympathetic but entirely ineffectual — these tropes are almost archetypal. What drives the drama here is Marina’s strength, her indefatigable willingness to suffer the slings and arrows of a world systemically aligned against her. In her own words, she is a survivor.
Lelio’s film is not without its flaws — its narrative structure is uneven, and its climax falls short of true catharsis. At times it can be a bit on the nose, as when Marina listens to Aretha Franklin’s “(You Make Me Feel Like) A Natural Woman” on her way to confront Orlando’s ex-wife, but the film nevertheless retains an inherent charm under the ugliness of its story world. And yet despite such caveats, it renders a sensitive portrait of trans life that never sensationalizes its subject, A Fantastic Woman accomplishes something truly special. Spanish with English subtitles. Rated R for language, sexual content, nudity and a disturbing assault.
Opens Friday at Fine Arts Theatre.