The New Almódovar?

A Fantastic Woman (Una mujer fantástica)
(Chile/Germany/Spain/USA, 104 min.)
Dir. Sebastían Lelio, Writ. Sebastían Lelio, Gonzalo Maza
Starring: Daniela Vega, Francisco Reyes, Luis Genecco, Aline Küppenheim, Nicholás Saavedra
una mujer fantastica daniela vega
Daniela Vega in A Fantastic Woman
Is Sebastían Lelio the new Pedro Almódovar? The Chilean director already met the Spanish auteur by giving praise to older women in 2013’s festival hit Gloria, but he matches the master filmmaker’s intoxicating visual sense and sensitivity to queer stories with the outstanding new drama A Fantastic Woman. The film, produced by various hands behind Jackie, Spotlight and Toni Erdmann, is a worthy nominee for Best Foreign Language Film at this year’s Oscars and its Almódovar-esque passion is bound to satiate film buffs hungry for another hit from the Spanish director. The film proves Lelio to be one of international art cinema’s next auteurs.

Whatever praises one heaps upon Lelio, however, one must give equal credit to the film’s leading lady, Daniela Vega. She owns the screen with the fiery passion that Carmen Maura and Penélope Cruz bring to an Almódovar film and Lelio knows how to frame her with a similarly beguiling sensuality. The film notably gives a one-woman show to Vega in this character study of a transwoman in Santiago mourning the sudden death of her lover. Vega gives one of the year’s breakout performances, not simply for advances in onscreen self-representation, but for dramatic passion. It’s a firecracker of a performance.

Vega takes centre stage when the unexpected death of Marina’s boyfriend, Orlando (Francisco Reyes), spirals into a traumatic chain of events. The police at the hospital are wary of the bruises on Orlando’s body (he fell down the stairs) and seem more suspicious of the nature of their relationship. They insist on calling Marina by “his” legal name, Daniel, and circle around questions about the sex trade and the dynamic between her and Orlando. There are insinuations of perversity. An investigator with the sexual crimes unit violates Marina for her own pleasure. It’s nasty business.

Matters become worse when Orlando’s son, Bruno (Nicholás Saavedra), and ex-wife, Sonia (Aline Küppenheim), enter the picture. They are understandably uneasy with Marina given that Orlando left them for her, but these are not progressive people. They forbid Marina from coming to Orlando’s wake or funeral and kick her out of the apartment into which Orlando welcomed her shortly before his death. Beyond the emotional damage and manipulation, Orlando’s family retaliates with physical assault and abhorrent verbal abuse. Inappropriate questions about what’s between Marina’s legs, for example, take pleasure in violating her. They speak to her like a freak, a “thing,” and not like a person who shared love with someone they loved as well. Sonia calls her a “chimera” – a hybrid beat from mythology. Only Orlando’s brother (Luis Genecco) shows any sympathy—or awareness of Marina’s gender and identity—but even he’s bashfully awkward in her presence.

Marina shakes off the abuse as best as she can and Vega remains resolutely confident and focused. Determined to say farewell to Orlando, Marina sticks to her principles. This clearly isn’t the first time she’s encountered such hostility and discrimination from close-minded people. But, more importantly, the toxicity of Orlando’s family doesn’t hamper her memory of him.

Lelio treats Marina and Vega with respect and dignity. A Fantastic Woman doesn’t depict Marina as either “special” or “tragic.” She’s just Marina and the film gives her an empowering show of agency.

A Fantastic Woman’s intoxicating visual style continually invites audiences to look at Marina head-on and consider the full spectrums of womanhood and femininity. Lelio frequently frames Vega in close-up portraits that offer a direct gaze into the camera. These images present Marina through a broad range of androgyny. She might have her make-up on and her hair stylishly coiffed, or her face might be unadorned with her hair back to let her jawline jut out a little more into the frame, but Lelio consistently frames her for what she is: a human being. Vega bravely lets the director use her face and curves for aesthetics that go beyond visual pleasure. Each composition defies stereotypes.

Even when Lelio stages the most flamboyant moments of A Fantastic Woman, he challenges one to observe Marina’s lifestyle and behaviour and see it as anything but empowering. Any fans of Paulina García’s finale in Gloria in which she embraces middle age and unreservedly decides to dance like nobody’s watching will be instantly won over by a sequence in which Marina descends upon the Santiago nightlife in search of release following Orlando’s death. She owns the dancefloor in a number of hypnotic entrancement in which Lelio lets her be out, flamboyant, and in control. As she leads a chorus of sexy dancers in a number that rivals García’s brave solo, Vega floats above the action and holds the camera in an enraptured stare: this is what it means to be human and to need to feel alive while overcoming pain.

Lelio uses mirrors to emphasize the power of images and reflection, while an entrancing score by Nani García and Matthew Herbert offers a whirlwind of flutes and strings that recall the hypnotic spiral of Vertigo as Marina probes the abyss left by her lover’s death. A Fantastic Woman, like the best of the early Almódovar films, fabulously plays with genre and style to create a world that is uniquely its own. Above all, though, the film is a showcase for Vega and she is simply fantastic.

A Fantastic Woman played for members at TIFF Lightbox on Jan. 25.
It opens Feb. 9.