, ,

The Academy Award-winner is truly fantastic 

Daniela Vega as Marina

By T.T. Stern-Enzi

Every year, I find that somehow, no matter how carefully I plan my festival screening schedule, I wind up missing out on a gem or two in Toronto. And typically, the omissions tend to be foreign language titles. This year, I eagerly made certain to catch “The Square,” Ruben Östlund’s follow-up to “Force Majeure,” his unsettling 2014 dramedy about a family’s vacation in the French Alps that gets upended in the aftermath of an avalanche. “The Square” landed an Oscar nomination in the foreign language category (as Sweden’s representative), but the film lost out to Sebastián Lelio’s quietly affecting portrait of love lost.

The “Fantastic Woman” at the heart of Lelio’s film is Marina (Daniela Vega), a transgender nightclub singer and waitress in the midst of a tender affair with Orlando (Francisco Reyes), an older man who has completely given his heart and soul to Marina. After catching one of Marina’s haunting performances (reminiscent of Isabella Rossellini in “Blue Velvet”), Orlando takes her out for a birthday dinner before heading home for a more private celebration. In the middle of the night, Orlando wakes up dazed and confused. Marina struggles to get him to the hospital as quickly as possible, but sadly, Orlando dies of an aneurysm.

Orlando’s death proves to be the inciting incident in a social drama about the tragic mistreatment, across the board, of anyone outside the confines of what society deems normal. From the moment Marina and Orlando arrive at the hospital, Lelio (who performed a similar miracle of intimacy in “Gloria” about an older woman in search of love) offers audiences the chance to be flies on the wall. We watch as the staff displays discomfort with the relationship between Marina and Orlando. Questions spring forth. Is Marina his daughter or lover? And soon gender distinctions come into play.

There are procedural elements that pop up, especially once the police begin to suspect foul play, since Orlando’s body has fresh wounds (sustained during a tumble down the stairs in his apartment building as Marina attempted to gathering his things). A supposedly sympathetic female police officer from the sex crimes unit (Amparo Noguera) wonders if Orlando had been abusive, forcing Marina to fight back in self-defense, but her cold pursuit of the truth leaves Marina physically and
psychologically vulnerable.

Then, of course, there are Marina’s fraught interactions with Orlando’s family. Orlando’s brother Gabo (Luis Gnecco) seems genuine in his interactions with Marina, but Orlando’s ex-wife Sonia (Aline Kuppenheim) usurps all rights to mourning, barring Marina from attending the wake and the funeral. Things become more dangerous when Orlando’s son seeks to throw Marina out of his father’s apartment and even enlists male family members to attack Marina after the funeral in an alley.

In each of these cases, what Lelio presents is the contrast between how others perceive Marina and how she truly is. Despite her prominent features and build, along with her fierce independence, Marina is not the fighter everyone sees. Behind the melancholy she obviously feels, having lost her lover, there is a core to the character that Vega captures, which needs to be protected at all costs. In those early scenes with Orlando, we see and feel nothing more than Marina’s desire to be loved, to enjoy this one chance at happiness, but Vega lets us in on her secret: that she doesn’t quite trust in her right to be happy.

“A Fantastic Woman” steers clear of probing its soap melodramatic elements. A lesser filmmaker would have taken us down the path where the police hound Marina, seeking to turn Orlando’s death into a homicide just so that we could get a sensational court case or a titillating scene of jailhouse abuse. Or maybe the dust-up between Marina and Orlando’s son might have been drawn out into a climatic fight in search of a knock-out.    

All of us deal with this very existential crisis, but in Marina’s case, it is obviously compounded by social mores, which varying degrees of privilege allow most of us to ignore. And Lelio is wise enough to trust us with her all-too human burden. The harsh treatment she receives every step along the way in the film is infinitely more devastating than any of the plot-driven hijinks I detailed. If Lelio had gone that route, Marina may have won the battle in the fashion of some comic book superhero, but “A Fantastic Woman” would have lost what makes its protagonist truly unique and inspirational.

Rating: R; Grade: A