A fantastic Woman

By Jason Solomons

Playing nightclub singer Marina Vidal, Chilean newcomer Daniela Vega delivers an outstanding debut performance that challenges, beguiles and mesmerises the viewer. The spell cast by this trans actress – and her extraordinary creation of a trans character – even worked on the fusty voters of the Academy Awards, who last week gave it an Oscar for Best Foreign Language Film. Marina is a creature of fascination, both to us and to all the other characters in the film, too, who are all searching to find out who this woman really is. I suppose Marina’s on a bit of quest for that herself, but not as much as everyone else who seems totally wrong-footed by the sexual fluidity and human dignity of Marina.

This beautiful young woman is plunged into a heartbreaking drama when her older lover, Orlando, has a heart attack and collapses in her arms, ending their blissful, escapist love affair and ruining the great night they were having to celebrate his birthday. She takes Orlando to the hospital – dropping him down the stairs on the way – and immediately the authorities want to know who she is. Police, doctors, lawyers, friends – they all want to know this person’s association with the respectable businessman Orlando, and why there are signs of bruising. Forced out into ‘normal’ society, the trans  Marina becomes an object of suspicion and her life spirals out of control. The dead man’s grown-up family are especially upset. Not only was this husband and father having an affair – which is acceptable as long as it happens in the Santiago pied-à-terre away from the suburban family home – but now they discover it was with a much younger person who’s also trans... well, it’s just too much to take.

Marina is threatened with eviction from the flat she shared with Orlando and banned from attending her lover’s funeral. She’s also under suspicion from the police and subjected to the most undignified of physical body inspections. Everyone insists on sizing Marina up, assessing her, figuring her out. ‘I don’t know what you are,’ glowers Orlando’s outraged son. ‘I am flesh and bones,’ replies Marina, ‘like you.’ It’s a subtle detail worth remarking on, that her pet dog seems to be the only one with no issues about her gender. Director Sebastián Lelio made Gloria in 2013, a terrific, Oscar- nominated film about a lonely woman in her 50s on the Santiago singles scene. In fact, he’s just remade it, in English, starring Julianne Moore, and he weaves a delicate magic. The ‘fantastic woman’ of the title is hard to pin down, despite everyone’s efforts, and she’s sometimes depicted like a shadow, a ghost, a dream.

With Marina at its centre, it becomes a concoction of a film that shifts from romcom to melodrama to thriller to musical and – practically inevitable in a Chilean film – political metaphor about a society still coming to terms with its identity after years of repression. You might say it’s a transgender film about a transgender person. There are haunting hints of Hitchcock while Vega, close-ups of whose gorgeous face often dominate the screen, reminded me of the late Jeanne Moreau in those Louis Malle thrillers like Lift to the Scaffold and The Lovers.

While you get a good look at life and society in Santiago, you peer deep into the soul of a woman who has done nothing wrong, yet with whom society can’t be comfortable – not without staring. Lelio and Vega play cheeky (Crying?) games with that confrontational aspect, too, daring us to look, to ask questions, to require answers, to stare. And Marina Vidal just stares back: defiant, beautiful, fantastic.