“A Fantastic Woman,” which just won this year’s Best Foreign Language Film at the Academy Awards, plays at the Martha’s Vineyard Film Center this weekend. It was directed by a Chilean, Sebastián Lelio, who also directed “Gloria” (2013), which played at the Film Center in 2014.
A landmark times three, the film follows the life of Marina Vidal, a transgender singer and waitress, played by transgender actress Daniela Vega. Vega also introduced Sufjan Stevens’ Oscar-nominated song, “Mystery of Love,” from “Call Me by Your Name.” It was the first time an openly transgender actor or actress presented a nomination or an award at the Oscars.
“A Fantastic Woman” opens with a dramatic series of shots of the World Heritage site Iguazu Falls on the border between Brazil and Argentina. Its significance comes up again later. Next the camera shows a man lying supine on a massage table, an image echoed by others later in the film. The man is Orlando (Francisco Reyes), who is Marina’s much older lover. The prefatory scenes that follow illustrate the deep romantic feelings the two share, until Orlando collapses. Marina rushes him to the hospital, but he dies of an aneurysm.
The grieving young trans woman is immediately faced with bigoted responses to her sexual identity. A hospital security guard requires her to show the I.D. that still lists her former identity as a man called Daniel, and a number of characters insist on calling her Daniel. After collapsing, Orlando sustained injuries when he fell down a flight of stairs. A policewoman from the Sexual Crimes investigation Unit, suspicious that Marina may have caused the injuries, shows up to interview her and warns her not to leave Santiago. Then she is subjected to a humiliating physical exam. Orlando’s ex-wife tells Marina she cannot attend his wake or funeral.
Abuse after abuse, some of it physical, continues, but Marina maintains her dignity. While her face may often seem like an impassive mask, her frequent lack of expression makes protective sense.
The film’s Spanish title, “Una mujer fantástica,” means fantasy woman as well as fantastic, and the film incorporates elements of fantasy. Marina often sees visions of Orlando after his death. Walking along a sidewalk, she leans at least 45 degrees into a fierce wind. At another point, she leads a nightclub dance in a sparkling costume, flying upward.
In addition to building up meaning through the repetition of images, the director uses reflections on sunglasses, mirrors, and car windows, mirroring Marina’s state of mind. The final such reflection is the most haunting. Not since “The Danish Girl” and TV’s “Orange Is the New Black” has there been so powerful a portrait of a transgender woman.
For information or tickets to “A Fantastic Woman” and other Film Center films, go to mvfilmsociety.com.