'A Fantastic Woman' Is As Strong And Complicated As Its Star

Feb 1, 2018
Originally published on February 12, 2018 5:36 am

When Orlando (Francisco Reyes) enters a rooftop supper-club in Santiago at the beginning of the film, he can't take his eyes off Marina (Daniela Vega), a striking young vocalist who's crooning lyrics about throwing her boyfriend out with the garbage because, she sings, his love "is like yesterday's newspaper."

She sings that line straight to Orlando, with a little smile. She's definitely not throwing him away ... she's moving into his apartment as soon as they celebrate her 27th birthday.

But that night, things take a terrible turn. Orlando wakes up feeling ill. Marina rushes him to the hospital, where less than half an hour later, he dies due to an aneurysm.

At that point, Marina's ordeal is only beginning. The doctors who couldn't save Orlando look at Marina in the harsh hospital lighting and begin to treat her as a suspect. A policeman demands to see identification and frowns at the fact that the name on her ID card is "Daniel."

A Fantastic Woman is Chile's submission to this year's Academy Awards, and it'll be one of the five films up for best foreign language film on Oscar night. Director Sebastian Lelio often makes films with strong, complicated women at their centers — his 2013 awards-circuit hit, Gloria for instance. In Marina, he's got a uniquely striking heroine, whom he is forever surrounding with mirrors and reflective surfaces, as if determined that we should see her from every possible angle.

The director first encountered Daniela Vega, who plays Marina, while researching Santiago's transgender community. Initially a consultant, Vega not only won the part, she clearly influenced it — she is herself a trans woman, and an opera-trained singer who supplies her own vocals throughout the film. Vega gives Marina a fierce dignity that the character needs when dealing with Orlando's son and with his ex-wife, who refuses even to see Marina as a woman.

"When I look at you I don't know what I'm seeing" she says bluntly, but she also uses the word "perversion" — which suggests she at least knows what she thinks about what she's seeing. And she's adamant that Marina not attend Orlando's funeral, something she emphasizes by always addressing her as Daniel.

"Complicated," she says at one point, "quantum physics complicated." The film reflects that, while also acknowledging that things don't have to be. Even as she copes with her own grief, Marina must deal with being mistreated, misjudged, even mugged. And then there'll be a moment of grace — as a gentleman simply stands aside to let her enter an elevator first. Someone who can navigate all that, and remain resilient, assertive, even charismatic? Yes — she's a fantastic woman.

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ARI SHAPIRO, HOST:

Chile's Oscar nominee for best foreign language film is a drama called "A Fantastic Woman." It's the story of a transgender singer. And unlike the trans leading characters in the movie "The Danish Girl" on TV's "Transparent," the main character in "A Fantastic Woman" is played by a transgender actress. Critic Bob Mondello says that makes a difference.

(SOUNDBITE OF FILM, "A FANTASTIC WOMAN")

DANIELA VEGA: (As Marina Vidal, singing) Tu amor es un periodico de ayer.

BOB MONDELLO, BYLINE: A rooftop supper club in Santiago - Orlando, a 50-something businessman is gazing at his lover, a much younger vocalist named Marina, who's singing about throwing a boyfriend out with the garbage because his love...

(SOUNDBITE OF FILM, "A FANTASTIC WOMAN")

VEGA: (As Marina Vidal, singing) Tu amor es un periodico de ayer.

MONDELLO: ...Is like yesterday's newspaper. Marina sings that line right to Orlando with a little smile. She's definitely not throwing him away. She's moving into his apartment as soon as they celebrate her 27th birthday. But that night, things take a terrible turn. Orlando wakes up feeling ill.

(SOUNDBITE OF FILM, "A FANTASTIC WOMAN")

VEGA: (As Marina Vidal) Orlando, que te pasa?

FRANCISCO REYES: (As Orlando) No se.

VEGA: (As Marina Vidal) Orlando.

MONDELLO: Marina rushes him to the hospital where less than half an hour later, he dies - an aneurism - at which point Marina's ordeal is only beginning. The doctors who couldn't save Orlando look at Marina in the harsh hospital lighting and begin to treat her as a suspect. A policeman demands to see identification...

(SOUNDBITE OF FILM, "A FANTASTIC WOMAN")

VEGA: (As Marina Vidal) Mi nombre Marina Vidal.

MONDELLO: ...And frowns at the fact that the name on her ID card is Daniel.

(SOUNDBITE OF FILM, "A FANTASTIC WOMAN")

VEGA: (As Marina Vidal) Tiene un problema con eso?

MONDELLO: Then he calls the police unit that handles sexual offenses. Chilean director Sebastian Lelio is known for films with strong, complicated women at their centers. His awards circuit hit "Gloria" was one. In "A Fantastic Woman," he has a uniquely striking heroine whom he is forever surrounding with mirrors and reflective surfaces as if determined that we should see her from every possible angle. He also surrounds her with a soundscape that lets us hear when the world comes at Marina, how she bucks herself up.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "(YOU MAKE ME FEEL LIKE) A NATURAL WOMAN")

ARETHA FRANKLIN: (Singing) You make me feel like a natural woman.

MONDELLO: The director first encountered Daniela Vega, who plays Marina, while researching Santiago's transgender community for the film. Initially a consultant, Vega not only won the part. She clearly influenced it. She is herself a trans singer. It's her voice in that early nightclub scene. And she gives Marina a fierce dignity that the character needs when dealing with Orlando's ex-wife, who refuses to see Marina as a woman.

(SOUNDBITE OF FILM, "A FANTASTIC WOMAN")

ALINE KUPPENHEIM: (As Sonia) Cuando te veo, no se. No se lo que veo.

MONDELLO: "When I look at you, I don't know what I'm seeing," she says bluntly. But she also uses the word perversion, which suggests she knows what she thinks about what she's seeing. And she's adamant that Marina not attend Orlando's funeral, something she emphasizes by using the name the policeman noted on that ID at the hospital.

(SOUNDBITE OF FILM, "A FANTASTIC WOMAN")

KUPPENHEIM: (As Sonia) Daniel, no vas a ir al funeral por favor.

MONDELLO: Complicated, she says, of their encounter - quantum physics complicated. And the film reflects that while also acknowledging that it doesn't have to be. While coping with her own grief, Marina must deal with being mistreated, misjudged, even mugged. And then there will be a moment of grace as a gentleman simply stands aside to let her enter an elevator first. Someone who can navigate all that and remain resilient, assertive, even charismatic - sure, she's a fantastic woman. I'm Bob Mondello. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.