I’ve been trying to sort out the title of A Fantastic Woman, a drama by Chilean director Sebastián Lelio. The film is quite content, for its first 20 minutes or so, to let its protagonist Marina (Daniela Vega) be utterly ordinary — a waitress and lounge singer dating the kindly, well-to-do owner of a textile company. She and her lover Orlando (Francisco Reyes) celebrate her birthday, go out dancing, get drunk, and make love. Then Orlando wakes up in the middle of the night, dazed and short of breath. He collapses and falls down the stairs as Marina tries to take him to the hospital. By the next day, he has died.
The grief that Marina ought to descend into is cut short by the arrival of Orlando’s family, most of whom do not approve of her or her relationship with their late relative. Marina is trans, and the circumstances around Orlando’s death draw the unwelcome scrutiny of law enforcement and medical professionals. Marina is still waiting for her legal name change to go through; her ID still bears the name “Daniel,” which one cop insists on using with her, the first of many humiliations to come. This, along with the outright hostility of Orlando’s ex-wife and son, put Marina on the defensive for the rest of the movie, and us along for the ride on her quest for peace.
It’s clear that, at least during the time we spend with her, Marina doesn’t have any desire to be fantastic, and Vega spends most of the film locked down with a kind of permanent poker face. That most of the time her fears are justified doesn’t help matters. A sympathetic-seeming female detective coerces her into a degrading physical examination; after she softens enough to offer her sympathies to Orlando’s ex-wife Sonia (Aline Küppenheim), Sonia snaps and calls Marina and her relationship a “perversion.” The most horrific sequence comes at the hands of Orlando’s boorish son, and it leaves her and us with a profound sense of despair. The tenderness we see her share with her boyfriend at the beginning of the film is sharply missing from the rest of it, which leaves us with an often frustratingly locked-off subject.
There are moments of the fantastic, though, primarily a dazzling dream sequence at a club, where Marina envisions herself suddenly lifted out of her bedraggled state, clad in sparkling tinsel and backed by an ensemble of dancers. We can guess that this is the fantastic woman she truly is when she’s not fending off the goons; this is the woman Orlando was in love with. We see a glimpse of this early on, when he meets her at a gig at a hotel bar, singing a sassy salsa number and winking at him from the stage. Matthew Herbert’s score is dreamy and ebullient, suggesting a rich inner life that we long to see more of.
But what Marina, and we by proxy, keep coming up against is not how fantastic she is, but rather how extraordinary she is. The sidelong glances she gets even from the most well-meaning people she crosses paths with is enough to make anyone want to hide out at home in sweatpants forever in sympathy; that Marina keeps making herself an inconvenience for Orlando’s horrible family is enough to make her a worthy heroine. When she finally achieves the small recompense she seeks, it’s a visceral relief. I just wish Vega and Lelio let us in a little more to see her as an individual, aside from the hostility she encounters.