In one of the occasional surreal asides that punctuate Sebastián Lelio‘s riveting “A Fantastic Woman,” Marina (Daniela Vega) is walking on a street when a sudden, Almodovarian wind whips up out of nowhere. Leaves and bits of trash scurry past her, her hair is blown back from her face, her clothes plastered to her front. She leans in, but the wind grows stronger, blowing her to a standstill, her body almost horizontal. You do not need to know that the translation of Handel’s aria “Ombra Mai Fu,” which will play a transcendently lovely role in the film later on, contains the line “nor may you by blowing winds be profaned” to feel the metaphorical weight of the scene. Marina, as a trans woman, is constantly profaned, subtly and overtly, caught in a wind tunnel of social judgments, appraisals and external opinions. But Marina, as the difficult, complicated, fantastic person she is before anything else, will weather that storm: she still needs to get where she is going. After the exceptional “Gloria,” Chilean director Lelio returns in a different, semi-Hitchockian register, to give us another stunning, deeply involving portrait of a woman with the borderline superhuman capacity not to hate herself for who she is, no matter who else does.
Marina is a waitress and a singer, with a voice that can sound either smokily seductive or scintillatingly pure: she is a pop song and an operetta. She is in love with the older Orlando (Francisco Reyes) his name perhaps a sly wink toward Virginia Woolf‘s eponymous hero/ine. Together they celebrate her birthday, and later they make love. But he wakes up with a headache and after a terrified Marina drives him to the clinic, he dies one of those tragic ordinary deaths: real, messy, inopportune. The stunned and numb Marina leaves the hospital in a daze, only to be picked up by the police in the first of what will be several politely pitiless interactions with authority figures: the first reference made to her gender is when an officer at the hospital refers to her as “sir,” and already at this early stage of the film, the syllable drops like a stone.
Orlando had left his family for Marina — uncomprehending wife Sonia (Aline Küppenheim), vicious grown-up son Bruno (Nicolás Saavedra), compassionate but ineffectual brother Gabo (Luis Gnecco). The business of Orlando’s death, and the return of his assets to his legal kin will bring Marina into contact, and on one occasion, assaultive conflict, with each of them. But Lelio’s film, co-written with regular collaborator Gonzalo Maza, is not the straightforward melodrama that implies. Instead it unfolds in a noirish, haunted manner, like a mystery, complete with recurring motifs — a Santiago fountain recalls a car wash that recalls a waterfall — and intriguing maguffins, like the unidentifiable key Marina finds in the footwell of Orlando’s car.
But this tone of suspense and danger is perhaps the biggest red herring of all: the plot is not a whodunnit, it is simple and sad. So perhaps Marina is the mystery? Even her sympathetic manager at the restaurant (Antonia Zegers) refers to her as such. And the way DP Benjamín Echazarreta gives us so many close-ups seems to reinforce the impression, as though the camera is searching her face for secrets. But the superb Vega’s steady, liquid, fathomless gaze is so direct that we come to understand that behind it, behind the barricade of defenses she’s built up against an unfriendly world, she is no enigma at all: she is completely known to herself.
So the mystery, really, is us, and why, when we look at her, we see a mystery at all. “I look at you and I don’t know what I’m looking at,” hisses Sonia “I see a chimera.” But that is a judgment on her, not Marina: it’s the thinly civil corollary of the invasive, prurient fascination with Marina’s anatomy that informs her interactions with Bruno, with doctors, and with the “Sexual Offenses Investigator” assigned to her case. Everyone seems to feel like they have the right to Marina’s body, appearance and psychology, as though they’ll be able to locate somewhere in there the source of their own projected shame. But the humanism of Lelio’s film is that, in giving Marina such agency and sureness, he reminds us that people belong, only and utterly, to themselves: no one is your puzzle to be solved.
“A Fantastic Woman,” has already been snapped up for distribution by Sony Pictures Classics, is co-produced by Maren Ade, produced by Pablo Larraín and stars, in Gnecco, Zegers, and Reyes in particular, several familiar faces from the latter’s films. Indeed, quite aside from its kinship with “Gloria,” Lelio’s film would make a fascinating companion piece for Larraín’s own “Jackie,” another portrait of a bereaved woman contending with grief, and the gulf between who she is and how she is perceived. But it is made its own thing by Lelio’s audacious filmmaking (in which Matthew Herbert‘s original music, particularly a melodic leitmotif made sinister by some Bernard Herrmann-style strings sets off an acutely well-judged soundtrack, one over-literal use of “Natural Woman” aside), crackling around a lightning-rod performance from newcomer Vega.
Unfolding in a darker, more foreboding mood than the sunny, spiky “Gloria” and taking its cue from a more truculent and reserved central character, the film is less instantaneously lovable than its elder sister, and there are times when the undertow of grief and alienation throttles its momentum down a little too far. And perhaps some will be frustrated when the mystery box is finally opened and revealed to be empty of everything but our own disappointed expectations of revelation. But these idling, thoughtful moments do give us time to think about all the ways Marina is assailed by outside forces, to admire her resilience in overcoming them, and finally to be surprised that anyone who has learnt to expect so little from the world should turn out to have such a fine gift to give it.
There is a linguistic snare in describing Marina’s voice: the Italian-derived classifications of vocal register are gendered, and without seeing her it would be hard to know which term to use. But then, “A Fantastic Woman” suggests that hostility toward something or someone that is not easily categorized would be better directed at the categories themselves. Listen to Marina sing, and before you’d classify the sound as anything, you’d call it beautiful. [A-/B+]