The actress shines despite a clumsily-told story.
A woman’s world falls apart after the death of her older partner in Sebastián Lelio’s A Fantastic Woman. Bookmarked by songs performed by its star Daniela Vega, the Chilean film (and now Best Foreign Language Film Oscar winner) depicts her grief and loss. Vega portrays Marina, a trans woman who drives her dying lover Orlando to the hospital in the middle of the night and still goes into work for her waitressing job the next day.
A Fantastic Woman shows Marina confronted with homophobia, hateful language and acts of humiliation from her lover’s family and the police. She is told not to attend Orlando’s funeral and is physically attacked and misgendered by a few of his family members; one of them even reports her to the authorities.
The continual attacks on her gender and person are overwhelming, and makes one wonder why the screenwriters (Lelio and sometime writing partner Gonzalo Maza) allow Marina so little agency and support. Orlando appears to her in visions; she follows him through an empty cemetery like he’s Orpheus leading her out of the underworld. Marina is tossed from one debacle to another, as if she has no control over her life.
Marina tends to internalize her feelings unless she is singing or hitting a punching bag. She is determined to keep the dog she and Orlando shared, but other than her anger over that, she remains stoic. And as Marina is shut out from family memorials, her interior journey shuts out the viewer, in a way.
There are issues with the pacing in A Fantastic Woman; for instance, a couple of dream-like sequences halt story momentum and don’t serve to further illuminate Marina’s character. Mirrors and other reflective images recur throughout, a clunky visual allusion to themes of appearance and identity. Vega makes the best of the material and sings a Handel aria with a pure, sweet tone. Despite the limitations of her character — whether through the director’s choices or the script — the actress remains a captivating onscreen presence.
A Fantastic Woman is now playing in select Austin theaters.