Director: Sebastián Lelio
Cast: Daniela Vega, Francisco Reyes, Luis Gnecco, Aline Kuppenheim, Nicolas Saavedra
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Sebastián Lelio achieved international success in 2013 with Gloria, a warm-hearted comedy drama starring Paulina Garcia as a 50-something divorcee exploring the Santiago singles scene. Lelio’s follow-up film, A Fantastic Woman, confirms the director / co-writer as a compelling and compassionate voice in Chilean cinema, with a sensitivity towards female-focused stories that has drawn deserved comparison with the work of Pedro Almodovar.
Trans actress Daniela Vega plays Marina Vidal, a transgender singer who’s just moved in with her boyfriend, divorced 57-year-old Orlando (Francisco Reyes). When Orlando dies suddenly from an aneurysm, Marina is devastated, but finds her troubles are just beginning, as his horrified family order her to leave the apartment and refuse to let her attend the funeral. To make matters worse, the police suspect her of, at best, prostitution and, at worst, murder, since Orlando fell down some stairs and sustained suspicious injuries when she was trying to get him to the hospital.
Lelio’s script (co-written with Gonzalo Maza) teases Hitchcockian thrills with its initial set-up, which has echoes of The Wrong Man, particularly in its depiction of the less-than-understanding police officers. However, the film is ultimately a heartfelt and compassionate character study, closer in tone to Lelio’s Gloria, as the audience is invited to literally walk a mile in Marina’s shoes, experiencing a multitude of different reactions to the way she lives her life. The effect of this is extremely powerful, making the audience pathetically grateful for the smallest act of kindness, even if Marina herself treats it with scepticism born of experience.
Vega is utterly mesmerising as Marina, combining steely toughness with heart-wrenching vulnerability and meeting every obstacle with remarkable strength, no matter how horrific or upsetting the circumstances. Watching her, you’re hit with the unmistakeable feeling that you’re witnessing the birth of a star (as evidenced by her presenting gig at the Oscars), and it will be fascinating to see what kind of parts she gets offered going forward. (The producers of Amazon’s Transparent should snap her up immediately.)
Lelio consistently surrounds Vega with reflective surfaces (windows, mirrors, etc.), so you’re constantly aware of the contrast between her outward appearance and what’s driving her on the inside. This is compounded by the highly Almodovar-esque touch of having the occasional fantasy sequence – most notably, a nightclub scene where Marina performs as she sees herself, fully glammed-up and fabulous. (There’s a corresponding scene in Gloria, which would make a fantastic companion piece.)
Benjamin Echazarreta’s cinematography is stunning throughout and there’s a superb, string-based score from British electronic musician Matthew Herbert, while Lelio even pulls off the same on-the-nose soundtrack trick (using it as a sort of Greek chorus) with his song choices, here deploying Aretha Franklin’s (You Make Me Feel Like) A Natural Woman to unforgettable effect.