A Fantastic Woman doesn't so much open as detonate into being with a title sequence of arresting mystery and grandeur. Director Sebastián Lelio (Gloria) nudges the credits to the edge of the frame to make room for a stunning overhead shot of Iguazu Falls, great torrents cascading over a circular rim into an unfillable cavity, to the electronic score of composer Matthew Herbert.
Orlando (Francisco Reyes) is a debonaire fiftysomething cis man who's built a fulfilling life in Santiago, Chile, with Marina (Daniela Vega), a 28-year-old trans woman. We're introduced to them in the midst of a special evening. He strolls into a club where she's singing the Puerto Rican tune "Periódico de Ayer" ("Yesterday's News"). The moment is as amusing as it is ominous.
The couple goes dancing, then for drinks and dinner. For dessert, he presents her with a gift: a voucher good for a getaway to Iguazu. In the middle of the night, though, Orlando suffers an aneurysm. Marina rushes him to the hospital, but he's already gone. The loss of her true love — and, we'll come to see, her social safety net — turns her world upside down.
Vega, of course, doesn't merely play a young trans woman. She's that in real life, and this is her first feature performance, which makes her portrayal of the character even more remarkable than it might at first appear. As indignities and injustices cascade, she projects defiance and occasionally rage — while, inside, grief brings Marina ever closer to crumbling.
"What's that, a nickname?" an officer asks after reading Marina's birth name on her license. A detective forces her to submit to a humiliating physical exam just because she can. Cruelest is Orlando's ex-wife (Aline Küppenheim), who bans Marina from his funeral. "When I look at you," she hisses, "I don't know what I'm seeing."
Written by Lelio with Gonzalo Maza, A Fantastic Woman combines a sensitive meditation on identity and loss with a mixed bag of flourishes from noir, melodrama and surrealism. There's a bit about a mysterious locker key left by Orlando, for example, that doesn't go anywhere. The malice his ex exhibits toward Marina makes a point. But then the point is made again with less effectiveness. Then again. The director's dreamlike touches possess more eloquence.
Perhaps the movie's most indelible image is that of Marina alone, traversing a stretch of sidewalk as trash and scraps of paper (yesterday's newspapers?) whip by her. The punishing wind pushes her nearly parallel to the pavement, so that she is unable to move forward. She surprises us repeatedly, turning to the camera. To us. As if asking, "What are you looking at?"
I wasn't sure I had an adequate answer. Moving and empathetic as the film is, its creators elect to leave Marina's motivation unaddressed. Which left me wondering what it must feel like to need a different body. So I asked a friend who lives in one, who told me:
"The reason behind my abysmal self-esteem for the first 23 years of my life was the fact that I wasn't me. I was incomplete, and it was time to complete myself. The first time I did my injection ... it was a feeling that I will never forget, impossible to fully put into words."
Between the film and this friend, I think I've got the picture now. The movie is great. And, if it helps people put themselves in the pumps of the Marinas out there, how could that be anything but fantastic?