The life that Orlando (Francisco Reyes) has built with his girlfriend, Marina (Daniela Vega), which viewers glimpse in the opening 15 minutes of A Fantastic Woman, has a warm sense of stability. Orlando relaxes at a spa, then heads over to a bar where he watches Marina, a singer, perform. They celebrate her birthday at a Chinese restaurant, then head home to their apartment. Their relationship (he’s a cisgender man in his 50s, she’s a transgender woman in her late 20s) feels quiet, but not secret; it’s something they’ve carved out together, free of judgment.
There’s a safe tranquility to these early scenes; the Chilean director Sebastián Lelio films them as a gauzy fantasia. The spa and the restaurant are both subterranean and lit in soft neon: They’re enchantingly private realms, and Orlando is planning a vacation to another magical place, the Iguazu Falls (which Lelio uses as the backdrop for his opening credits). But when Orlando suddenly collapses at home and dies of an aneurysm, the wider world comes rushing in, and the effect is both heartbreaking and enraging.
“Are you a member of Mr. Orlando’s family?” the ER doctor asks Marina. “Yes.” “Are you his partner?” “Yes, we’re partners,” she replies. “Sorry, your name is … ?” “Marina Vidal.” A long pause. “But … that’s a nickname?” The gentle world Lelio has created quickly falls away; the next shot is of Marina, devastated, washing her face under the harsh light of the hospital bathroom. A Fantastic Woman, nominated in the Best Foreign Language Film category at this year’s Academy Awards, is a tremendous portrait of grief and prejudice. It’s also an incredible showcase for Vega, who excels in a role that’s unfortunately rare in film—as a trans character who’s more than the butt of a joke or an exoticized other.