The most romantic element of Chilean director Sebastián Lelio‘s A Fantastic Woman comes early, and its absence is never quite filled. Orlando (Francisco Reyes), a 57-year-old Santiago businessman with a gentle sort of gravitas, is finishing his day at the office and heading out to meet his girlfriend. Walking into a dinner club, he pauses to listen to the beautiful singer of the mediocre band. As she croons a tart little ballad about how “your love is like yesterday’s newspaper”, Orlando watches with eyes that drink her in like someone newly smitten. Then he starts mouthing the words she’s singing. He has been here before. That’s his much younger girlfriend, and he clearly can’t imagine tiring of her.
But this isn’t his story. What Lelio and his co-writer Gonzalo Maza aim to explore is what happens to the singer, Marina (Daniela Vega), when Orlando suddenly dies the day after they have an evening out celebrating her birthday. In the fluorescent light of the hospital hallway and the harsh glare of the officer who keeps calling Marina “sir” and asking to see her ID, which identifies her as “Daniel”, A Fantastic Woman‘s story becomes one of identity, half-formed and half-believed.
Unfortunately, the foreign film Oscar-nominated A Fantastic Woman is half-shaped. Lelio cues viewers in dramatic fashion to the plight of Marina, a trans woman who doesn’t seem able to get her bearings after losing Orlando. A waitress without much of a social life, Marina’s identity seems to have been wrapped up largely in her boyfriend’s protective embrace, particularly once his family comes sniffing around, casting suspicious looks and asking how much longer she’s planning on staying in the apartment. Meanwhile, a detective is asking leading questions about all the bruises and wounds the hospital staff found on Orlando.
Simply applying pressure on Marina, however, does not create a fully-realized film. Since the narrative has barely started before she’s racing to the hospital, we don’t have much evidence of Marina in her non-grief-stricken state. So the wary and guarded manner with which Vega edges oh so cautiously through A Fantastic Woman could be her normal character, a dazed reaction to the tragedy, or neither. By giving her almost no close relationships and defining Marina almost entirely in reaction to the forces pressing on her, Lelio doesn’t allow the character enough air to breathe. Lyrical moments like the scene where Marina leans forward at an impossible sharp angle into a powerful wind or where she fantasizes about a choreographed dance scene in a nightclub where she’s gone for some self-destructive obliteration potently visualize the strain she is under but no more.
There are some hints that A Fantastic Woman is attuned to a certain opacity in Marina’s character. When Orlando’s initially friendly and ultimately aggressive ex-wife Sonia (Aline Kuppenheim) first meets Marina, she says, “When I look at you, I don’t know what I’m seeing,” referring to Marina as a “chimera”. This could also be another example of the family members’ trans- and homophobia, which stands in for any deeper exploration of their relationship to Orlando.
While Lelio is not the most linear of storytellers, he has a deft hand regarding actors. Excepting a few flat notes from Vega, the performances in A Fantastic Woman are vivid throughout, much as they were in Gloria, Lelio’s brilliant character study of late-blooming romance. Alas, leaving so many plot strands dangling at the end of this promising but unfinished-feeling film—the police investigation subplot drifts away, and Marina’s fight with Orlando’s family is resolved in a very gimmicky fashion—strands the audience just as much as it does the performers.