A Fantastic Woman ★★★★

Sebastián Lelio’s “A Fantastic Woman” settles into a defiantly grounded drama about a trans woman fighting through her grief, but it starts with some incredible sleight of hand.

Set at the height of a Santiago summer, the film begins with a man named Orlando (“The Club” actor Francisco Reyes) as he gets a massage at his local sauna. Fifty-seven years old and looking like a gentler Jeremy Irons, Orlando leaves the health club and steps into the tired Chilean sun, eventually making his way to a nearby nightclub. He locks eyes with the singer onstage as soon as he steps inside, and she returns his attention with interest. Her name is Marina (first-time actress Daniela Vega), she’s roughly half Orlando’s age, and she’s very much in love with him. The feeling is mutual.

Later that night, the two of them have sex against the floor-to-ceiling window of the high-rise apartment they share together. Afterwards, Orlando suffers an aneurysm, falls down a flight of stairs, and dies. At the hospital, Marina is treated like a criminal; not because of the terrible bruises on her partner’s body, but because she’s transgender. It will be the first of the many indignities she’ll have to suffer as she mourns the greatest loss of her life. In most tellings of this story — and in the opening passages of this one — Marina would be little more than a curious accessory, a fetish object who exists for no other reason than to complicate the male lead’s inner crisis. In Lelio’s film, she becomes the story, and that pivot does not go unnoticed. “A Fantastic Woman” is about her, and damn if she doesn’t earn that title.

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