Hollywood likes to provide lives with closure and chapters in those lives with a sense of resolution.
Real life? Not so much.
“A Fantastic Woman” follows a transgender Chilean woman through the trauma of the death of her lover. Shock and grief are followed by humiliations, petty and grievous, as she comes to appreciate how much she has lost — a lover, a provider, happiness, acceptance and the simple status of someone allowed to grieve for a dead loved one.
Like life, it’s frustrating, a story of little a proud, capable and self-confident woman who hasn’t needed society’s acceptance before now. Or hasn’t realized she needed it. Her burden is to carry on as all around her refuse to let her be “normal” — in their eyes, or hers. It’s a sublime essay on identity, what it means to lose it, how fiercely we fight to get it back.
Marina, played with a sensitive stoicism by Daniela Vega, is a waitress by day and lounge meringue/salsa singer by night. Whatever Santiago at large might think of her, in her world, she has friends, supporters and a lover.
Orlando (Francisco Reyes) runs a textiles mill and lives the comfortable life of saunas, a good table at the club where Marina is singing, and at long last, the great love of his life. Director Sebastian Lelio teases out their connection, “Crying Game” style, as if Marina’s sultry voice and lack of an Adam’s Apple doesn’t give her away.
They go home, make out, and in the middle of the night, Orlando — who is much older — wakes up ill. He tumbles down the stairs before Marina can get him to the hospital, where he dies. And that’s where Marina’s bubble is burst.
A call to Orlando’s sympathetic brother is the last “normal” moment in this tragedy. Gabo (Luis Gnecco) is comforting, reassuring.
But the medical staff is sympathetic, but tactless. Marina, in shock, flees the building, leaving Orlando’s Volvo there. The the police show up. “Tactless” is their default setting. Suspicious beyond reason is where they’re headed.
The “delicate situation” Gabo warned of blows up into a full-fledged investigation, blunt questions about the nature of this May-November affair — “It was a healthy, consensual relationship,” Marina declares (in Spanish, with English subtitles). But Orlando’s injuries, and perhaps family suspicions, have the cops wondering.
We keep waiting for Marina to reiterate the fall down the stairs, to testily turn the family’s “suspicions” into a condemnation of their motives. The ex-wife (Aline Kuppenheim) is still put-out at who her husband ended up with and rather pointedly demands that Marina only deal with her.
And whatever her manners, let her talk long enough and her inner shrew, her intolerance and her determination to have her revenge — on Marina — pops out about her “perversion,” that she regards Marina as but “a chimera” of Orlando’s life — inconsequential, easily erased.
Lelio and co-writer Gonzalo Maza tease us with suggestions of Marina’s toughness, only to have Vega play her as acquiescent, overly accommodating as she deals with the family’s grief. She visits the arcade next to the restaurant where she works to vent frustrations on a punching bag machine. The stuff she has moved into Orlando’s apartment (they had just moved in together) includes punching bags. She can take care of herself.
But she stands there and takes the drunken rudeness of Orlando’s son (Nicolás Saavedra) from what we can guess was his first marriage, a brute who comes into the apartment, unannounced, with ugly questions (“Did you get the operation?”) and threats — “If you steal anything, I’ll know.”
A persistent detective (Amparo Noguera) can’t decide if Marina was abused, or the abuser.
And in the film’s opening, we’ve seen Orlando search for a mysterious lost envelope, and that Marina has found a mysterious key that could be the solution to her unofficial status with her man. Throughout the film, she searches for that status, utterly bereft at all she’s lost, hallucinating Orlando’s ghost — in the car, in the shadows.
Vega carries the picture with just her face, its pained, lantern-jawed delicacy incongruously carried on “footballer’s legs.” She absorbs the blows, some of them literal, grieving and aggrieved — not hesitating to stick up for her rights with the cops, increasingly defiant to a family hellbent on writing her out of their lives via the funeral.
Vega makes Marina noble, martyred and yet defiant, fiercely clinging to her femininity when we’re so desperate for her to bust Bruno’s nose. It’s a performance of sublime, constrained fury and tender conciliation. Keeping the peace is what Orlando would have wanted.
Lelio captures her downward spiral, fantasy sequences in clubs, walking into a Buster Keaton storm of staggering headwinds, struggling to keep her sense of self in the face of all these headlong assaults on who she is.
But Vega is one who assures us that resolution or not, Marina will endure and her suffering won’t be in vain. Whatever humiliates us and tests us without killing us just makes us stronger.
MPAA Rating: R for language, sexual content, nudity and a disturbing assault
Running time: 1:44