A handsome older man — trim, silver-haired, respectably bourgeoise — watches his young lover sing in a nightclub. He takes her out for an intimate dinner, holds her close on the dance floor, brings her home to bed. And then in the middle of the night, he wakes up disoriented and collapses to the floor. At the hospital, the questions start: Who is she to this to man, Orlando? What does she know about the bruises on his body? Is she a she at all?
That’s where the nightmare begins for Marina (Daniela Vega), the immensely watchable star of Chilean director Sebastián Lelio’s luminous, unflinching fever-dream of a drama. Vega, the first trans actress to lead a major Oscar-nominated film (it’s already considered a frontrunner in the best foreign language category) is a force of nature: tender, furious, indomitable. The story is less steady: a sort of punishing stations of the cross that her character must endure as nearly everyone in the city of Santiago — from her lover’s grown children and ex-wife to the doctors and detectives and security guards she encounters in the aftermath — seems to either actively hate or inadvertently humiliate her, merely for daring to exist.
There are a few kind bystanders: her no-nonsense boss at the cafe where she waitresses, a gentlemanly old friend of Orlando’s, a sympathetic sister and brother-in-law. But mostly she is treated like a pariah, an embarrassment, or worse: barred from the family funeral service, cast out of her apartment, forced to undergo a demeaning medical exam. “When I look at you, I don’t know what I’m seeing,” Orlando’s ex sneers, barely concealing her distaste. But Lelio’s heart and camera lens are wide open, and in a series of gorgeously surreal set pieces — a Marcel Marceau-style walk against the wind, a wild Carnaval-meets-Busby-Berkeley dance sequence — he unpeels the layers of his fiercely controlled heroine.
As much as Woman explores the sisyphean battles of living as a trans person in a straight world, the quieter beat beneath its story of Otherness is a portrait of grief, poignant and raw: though Marina sees visions of Orlando everywhere, she’s never really allowed to mourn him because officially, she has no claim on any part of him. “Saying goodbye to a loved one is a basic human right isn’t it?” she demands near the end, exhausted. She’s right of course, though for all of the movie’s almost subdermally intimate closeups, there’s also a basic part of Marina, her hopes and dreams and personal history, that stays always a little out of Lelio’s reach. Still it’s heartbreaking, illuminating, and yes, fantastic, just to watch her live. A–