Sebastián Lelio’s “A Fantastic Woman” is Chile’s entry for this year’s foreign-language Oscar. It’s mostly realistic, and very affecting, with a few surreal stretches. During one of them, the heroine makes her way along a sidewalk with her body tilted at a 45-degree angle against a gale. In another context the image would be funny, a tip of the hat to Buster Keaton. Here it’s eerily apt. Marina is a transgender woman, played with fierce eloquence by a transgender actress, Daniela Vega, and she’s marching into the teeth of a gale that threatens to unmoor her.
Marina’s life is calm when the story begins. A waitress who moonlights as a nightclub singer, she’s about to move in with Orlando, a businessman 20 years her senior; he’s played by Francisco Reyes. However intricate their relationship may be, it’s clear that there’s love between them. But her world is transformed in a flash when Orlando dies of an aneurism. Suddenly she’s the subject of a police investigation, and the object of implacable hostility on the part of Orlando’s family. “Complicated,” his bewildered ex-wife Sonia says to Marina’s face. “Total quantum physics.” Then her bewilderment turns to disgust. “I really think this is perversion. When I look at you I don’t know what I’m seeing.”
Sonia does know her physics. According to quantum theory, objects can exist in two states at the same time. The movie wants us to see the two states of Marina’s life. Look at her and you see some him. Look at him and you see a blossoming her; she is still “in transit” between two genders, we’re told, yet she’s well along the way toward a new state of being. And beyond the looking and seeing, this extraordinary film wants us to feel the coherence of Marina’s life. She is, she insists with beautiful passion, flesh and blood, like everyone else.
The mystery of gender identity is, of course, the film’s agenda, and in other hands the subject might amount to special pleading—why can’t we all just get along, no matter how we identify? What lifts argument into art is Vega’s brilliant performance in a role that’s been written with restraint but still gives the actress everything she needs to get past flesh and blood into heart and soul
Music figures significantly in “A Fantastic Woman.” Marina aspires to higher things, in higher registers, than singing pop tunes to nightclub audiences, and the haunting coloratura we hear from time to time is Ms. Vega’s own. In the here and now, however, she aspires most insistently to being a part of Orlando’s funeral ceremony, notwithstanding the opposition of his family. “Let us mourn as a family the way it’s meant to be,” an outraged Sonia tells her. But what, the movie asks, constitutes a family, and what way is anything meant to be?
I’m Joe Morgenstern. I’ll be back on KCRW week after next with more reviews.