Fantastic Woman: Chile’s Best Foreign Language Film Oscar

The protagonist of A Fantastic Woman, Chilean director Sebastián Lelio, is Marina (Daniela Vega), a young strong femme, who demands to be seen and accepted as she is: a transgender, in love with an older divorced man, Orlando (Francisco Reyes).

World premiering at the 2017 Berlin Fest, A Fantastic Woman was acquired by the estimable Sony Classics, and it is now nominated for the Best Foreign Language Film Oscar.

Early on, we observe Marina, a bar singer, making passionate love with Orlando. Unfortunately, this is the last time they meet, as Orlando suffers a shockingly fatal aneurysm, incurring serious injuries as he falls down the stairs.

Though still mourning the loss of Orlando, love of her life, she is determined to stand up for her rights, including.  Most of the tale describes her struggle against all those who refuse to even acknowledge her existence, let along offer support.

Marina dutifully notifies Gapo (Luis Gnecco), Orlando’s brother, that Orlando died at the hospital, before rushing quickly out of the place fearing the consequences of a police investigation of her involvement in his death.  Marina doesn’t make a creditable or convincing suspect—which is one of the script’s shortcomings–but the director might have chosen this element to build up some mystery and suspense, though most viewers are already ahead of the plot.

Leolo, like Spaniard fellow Almodovar, has shown special penchant for depicting strong, eccentric, unusual women, which is evident here as well as in his previous (and better) film, Gloria.

Though not intended as such, Fantastic Woman strikes me as too much of a message inspirational film. The bulk of the story is too conventional and predictable, revolving around the question of will Marina pulls courage and attend Orlando’s funeral, despite the objection of his biological family.

In flashbacks, which are all too-brief, we get a sense of the strong bond between them.  I wished Leo devoted more time to the portraiture of the two lovers: How did Marina meet Orlando? What was the nature of their courtship and outings?

Of the production values, I was vastly impressed by the soundtrack, a string-based score by British electronic musician Matthew Herbert, which may have been inspired by Hitchcock’s great collaborator, Bernard Hermann.

The opening images of waters at the Iguazau Falls on the Argentine-Brazilian border set in motion a romantic tale that, after the first reel, settles into a rather conventional melodrama.

Too simple for its own good, Fantastic Woman would have been more powerful and imactful had it been made a decade or two ago, when transgender was still a new subject in pop culture.

Even so, Fantastic Woman still is a timely and well-intentioned feature, elevated several notches above its melodramatic trappings by the powerful performance of trans actress Daniella Varga, who dominates every frame she is in.