The early scenes of Sebastián Lelio’s A Fantastic Woman hum with elegant misdirections, beginning as a routine day in the life of a late-middle-aged man named Orlando (Francisco Reyes). He comes off like one of Laurent Cantet’s businessman flaneurs, handsome and evidently wealthy but a bit of a lurker, and Lelio traces the man’s steps from a bathhouse to a hotel and then a nightclub with a kind of skeptical empathy. At the bar, Orlando fixes on a trans singer named Marina (Daniela Vega) and the two are quickly off together, walking to dinner in the Chinatown district of Santiago, Chile.
The grace with which Lelio hints at questions about Orlando and Marina is compelling, and the manner in which the filmmaker begins to address the couple’s status is gratifyingly direct and tender. They’re in a committed relationship and have just begun to live together, but the film stops caring about the emotional contours of their union once Orlando suffers an aneurysm and subsequently falls down a flight of stairs outside his apartment. To the viewer, there’s no mystery to his abrupt death, but Marina’s gender identity and recalcitrance foster suspicion among local authorities. Worse, they provoke outright disdain from members of Orlando’s family, who gradually strip Marina of the right to honor her partner and move forward.
Elements of noirish mystery persist throughout A Fantastic Woman, but the filmmakers prove less interested in their protagonist’s psyche than the intolerance she’s made to endure at every turn. After driving Orlando’s body to the hospital, Marina passes the responsibility of handling his affairs onto his friends and family. Her hasty exit from the scene compels a Sexual Offenses Unit detective, Adriana (Amparo Noguera), to examine Marina’s role in Orlando’s death, and it’s suggested that his ex-wife, Sonia (Aline Küppenheim), may have initiated the investigation. Marina’s interactions with the authorities and Orlando’s friends and family begin with an air of sympathy and mutual acceptance that quickly proves hollow. She’s misgendered, falsely accused, harassed, unheard or misunderstood.
Lelio’s film is essentially a methodical, Fassbinder-like tale of contemporary social indignity set in a notably tony version of Santiago. But unlike Fassbinder, whose tragic heroes were loud and difficult but utterly transparent, Lelio struggles to cultivate a means of identification with his assertive, if resolutely interior, protagonist. Though it’s evident that Marina comes from a different class than most of the film’s other characters, A Fantastic Woman is withholding about her background and family—and this would be less of a problem if Lelio and co-screenwriter Gonzalo Maza offered her much in the way of motivation or aspirations. The film is never less than forthright about asserting her fundamental dignity, but it’s fixated on what she’s lost: a home, the compassion of others, and a lover.
Orlando continues to pop up throughout the film as a specter, one that further underlines Marina’s sense of lack and existential limbo. Additional notes of Almodovarian surreality, like a scene of Marina trudging through strong headwinds or another of her performing with a glittery troupe of backup dancers, are as unfortunate as the on-the-nose needle-drop of Aretha Franklin’s “(You Make Me Feel Like) A Natural Woman” and the heavy-handed spite of Marina’s interlocutors. One of them calls her a “chimera,” and Leilo propagates that slur by unnecessarily dwelling on Marina’s partially nude body, distorting her face, and broadly insisting on her unknowability.
Elements of A Fantastic Woman—chiefly a rich, twinkling score by the great electronic musician Matthew Herbert—hint at the wells of emotion and experience that drive Marina, but the film’s blunt social messaging renders her a fundamentally reactionary presence. The undeniable strength and confidence of Marina’s presence is undermined by a film that tends to deny her those very qualities. Superficial when it means to be elliptical and regressive in its attempts to promote pride and tolerance, Lelio’s film is beautiful but vacant, the type of melodrama that reminds us that they shouldn’t always make them like they used to.