In A Fantastic Woman — the Academy Awards’ most recent, and wholly deserving, Best Foreign Language Film recipient — Marina Vidal is a Chilean nightclub singer with deeper aspirations to concert-hall intimacy.
Marina’s club gig is good, steady, keeps people dancing and drinking. And yet, without explicitly asking, she questions the value of her vocals in that space: Is she really connecting to anyone with her considerable gifts or is she a mere conduit to lively commerce?
Attention paid to Marina would be harder to feign in a performing-arts space — her notes reverberating, her dynamics infusing the sound with emotional adjectives, her timbre coloring the air, her eye contact establishing a bond breakable only by rising house lights. And even then, who’s to say the sensation she creates wouldn’t forever nestle in the soul?
This is the stage on which Marina hopes to someday stand, open before a world that is ready to hear — and truly listen to — her voice. But A Fantastic Woman finds Marina’s carefully curated plans halted in a fermata of fear after her older lover, Orlando (Francisco Reyes), suffers a fatal aneurysm.
Is it not the hope in love of any stripe to find someone who sees the best possible version of you and nurtures you closer to it in every way they can? That is the love Orlando and Marina share, dramatized in nigh-synesthetic splashes of color by cinematographer Benjamín Echazarreta, which flatten after Orlando’s death drains Marina’s life of all its vibrant hues.
And yet along with Marina’s freshly fragmented, wobbly reflection, Orlando lingers in the mirrors omnipresent throughout A Fantastic Woman, so couched in his comforts were Marina’s own. Echazarreta also slowly renders alien and empty a Santiago that once bustled and bloomed for Marina. Her only experience with enlivening color now exists as an escape inside her own mind – where Marina becomes the sole focus on a dance floor, presents an indomitable force against nature’s stiff winds and otherwise imagines high-wattage lights beaming in a world where they’ve essentially gone out.
What awaits Marina there are painfully familiar feelings of alienation, assumption and assessment. When most of the rest of the world looks at Marina, it sees … well, someone whose legal name might as well be uttered in a dead tongue. That’s because Marina is a transgender woman, as is Daniela Vega, the actress playing her. There isn’t an utter absence of humanity from everyone who interacts with Marina, but her pre-operative state often finds her forced into a sort of sociological Frankensteining.
Marina’s self-defense instinct is both a safety precaution and the stance from which she fights to claim the tiniest corner of canvas. She knows that any grace shown to her is still guarded, that suppositions about her are tinged with shame and scandal. To Orlando, she pledged eternity. To those who carry his memory with her, she is eternally “the other.”
Orlando’s death is followed by questions that presume aberrance, abnormality and aggression in their time together – that love couldn’t possibly be the natural order of things in this case. Was Orlando’s body stressed from sex? Who gave him the detected marijuana? Were his bruises and wounds the result of a transaction gone bad or a taboo sexual desire manifested in violence? How long will Marina stay in Orlando’s apartment? Drive his car? Care for his dog?
The most cutting of all: Would Marina kindly stay away from the funeral and erase herself from the picture? It’s a question posed in ways brutish and brusque by Orlando’s family — who has been content to keep Marina out of sight and out of mind until now — and altogether enraging for Marina to mull over.
Precisely calibrated and crowd-pleasing, Vega’s performance is stunning. In her countenance and choice of words, we gain an immaculate picture of the ways in which Marina navigates a world that most people believe is sullied from the sole choice by which they define her: Meet their gaze. Hold it, however uncomfortable. Challenge them. Challenge them again. Make them see you. Make them see you seeing them, no matter what.
At one point literally soaring skyward to return the viewer’s gaze, Vega’s eyes are wide, magnetic, forever flitting to gauge the next adaptation until she evolves into who she’s meant to be. Marina is no boringly noble, conveniently simplified cipher. She wrestles with self-destruction and struggles with becoming the “monster” she is seen as by some brutes in the second act. And, in some unexpectedly rousing scenes, we also see her remember the thrill of jabbing back at the world once in a while. Although she was unfairly overlooked by Oscar, Vega helps A Fantastic Woman establish itself as a story of confidence rattled, then recovered.
Meanwhile, co-writer / director Sebastián Lelio conveys Marina’s struggle to preserve a semblance of dignity, memory and identity as an invigorating combination of the Dardenne brothers’ day-to-day dramatics and Almodóvar’s amplified aesthetics. Narratively, A Fantastic Woman is little more than encounters between Marina, Orlando’s family, her co-workers at a café and her voice coach. But mechanical sounds of blinking lights, turning signals and dance-floor bangers establish a sort of metronomic urgency for Marina to arrive at a place of peace before she loses life’s tempo altogether. It’s complemented by a buoyant chamber-orchestra score from co-composers Matthew Herbert and Nani García and judicious pop selections by Aretha Franklin and the Alan Parsons Project.
Lelio resists the temptation of melodrama in Marina weighing easy revenge against Orlando’s family against the crushing blow of sullying his reputation. He also indulges just enough curiosity about a set of keys left in Marina’s care after Orlando dies … without fretting too much about whether documents mentioned early on can be found in the space those keys unlock. He also sidesteps more prurient aspects of stolen genital glances thanks to a defining image that shows us precisely what Marina needs to see. At every turn, A Fantastic Woman chooses a bolder path of realization over revelation and intimacy over inclusion – one on which Marina learns that her journey is, at least for right now, one in which any comforts found must be solitary. All the better in which to discover, and assert, a voice unbound, unwavering and unmistakably ready for the world.