MOVIE REVIEW: Heartwrenching transgender drama
A FANTASTIC WOMAN (M)
Director: Sebastian Lelio
Starring: Daniela Vega, Francisco Reyes
Verdict: A breakthrough performance
THIS heart-wrenching Chilean drama about a transgender woman who encounters extreme prejudice after the sudden death of her partner is a star vehicle for actor/singer Daniela Vega.
Her soulful performance lends unexpected potency to the film's potentially hyperbolic title.
Marina is a waitress who moonlights as a nightclub singer - her introductory number, comparing an old lover to yesterday's newspaper, is a corker.
Orlando (Francisco Reyes), Marina's boyfriend, is much older and fairly straight - he runs a textiles company and wears round, horn-rimmed spectacles.
Their relationship is happy, healthy and mutually supportive.
But when Orlando suffers a massive stroke and dies in A&E, Marina's place in the world is brought into sharp relief.
For a start, she's the mistress not the wife - a distinction Orlando's bitter, angry ex (Aline Kuppenheim) is keen to hammer home, beginning with a phone call to request the return of her former husband's car.
Socially, financially, legally, Marina is disenfranchised.
Not only is there no role for her in the planning Orlando's funeral, his family expressly refuses her right to attend.
Complicating matters still further is Marina's sexual identity.
Grief and jealousy mix with homophobia in an incendiary combination that ultimately results in physical abuse.
Orlando's adult son threatens Marina in the apartment she shared with her partner, making life so difficult she is forced to move out.
The authorities also treat her as some kind of a transgressor.
It's as if, by challenging gender conventions, she is somehow morally suspect.
Orlando has bruises from falling down the steps outside his apartment. The police suspect foul play.
In one powerful scene, Marina is subject to a humiliating physical examination during which the prurient police photographer attempts to document whether or not she has had the "op."
Director Sebastian Lelio, who co-wrote the screenplay with Gonzalo Maza, later circles back to this disturbing violation with an image that neatly reclaims Marina's dignity.
Lying on the bed in her new flat, she sits a round make up mirror over the site of so much curiosity and confusion. Instead of a sexual organ, her own image is reflected back to her.
The film's musical resolution - Vega also happens to be a gifted lyrical soprano - is pitch perfect.
Cisgender actors such as Felicity Huffman, Hilary Swank, Eddie Redmayne and Jared Leto have been rightly celebrated for their compelling portrayals of transgender characters.
But Vega's performance is quite literally something else. And it offers emphatic support for the growing campaign for transgender actors to play themselves on screen.
A Fantastic Woman opens tomorrow.