Oscar Nominee A Fantastic Woman Tells a Different Kind of Trans Story

Focusing its camera on trans actress Daniela Vega, the Chilean drama allows us to see not an actorly transformation but a fully formed person.

Daniela Vega in A Fantastic Woman.
Daniela Vega in A Fantastic Woman.
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Everywhere she goes, Marina Vidal (Daniela Vega) sees herself. A few minutes into A Fantastic Woman, her lover, Orlando (Francisco Reyes) dies of an aneurysm, and she sees him, too, popping up in her field of vision whenever her thoughts wander. But in the world created by the movie’s director, Sebastián Lelio, and his co-screenwriter Gonzalo Maza, it’s less remarkable for Marina to spot a gray-haired dead man in the streets of Santiago, Chile, than it is for others to lay eyes on a trans woman like her. “When I look at you,” Orlando’s ex-wife, Sonia (Aline Küppenheim), tells Marina, “I don’t know what I’m seeing.”

The best Sonia can do in terms of describing Marina is to call her a “chimera.” But Marina is neither monstrous nor mythical, and the film doesn’t present her as a hybrid but as a whole. The entertainment industry’s habit of casting cisgender actors in transgender roles—some of them, like Transparent’s Jeffrey Tambor, giving performances that are exceptionally fine—has gone hand in glove with its near-monolithic focus on stories of transition. Focusing the camera on Vega, an openly trans actress (apparently Chile’s first), allows A Fantastic Woman to tell a different, richer kind of story and allows us to process the subtleties of her performance without always having to evaluate the success of the underlying transformation.

It’s not until Orlando’s death that Marina’s identity is even called into question. We see her singing with a bar band as Orlando affectionately mouths the words, see the two celebrating her birthday with a cheesy musical cake at a Chinese restaurant, see him passionately kiss her after their celebratory night on the town. Orlando announces he’s booked them a trip to the massive Iguazu Falls, and it’s clear from the way she moves around his apartment, even as she’s frantically trying to get him to the hospital, that they’ve settled into some kind of domestic bliss. But when he dies, the questions start coming. A police officer asks for her name, and when she gives it, he asks again, in a way that suggests, “No, your name.” The film discreetly avoids using the character’s birth name there, but when Sonia shows up, she wields it like a weapon, and Orlando and Sonia’s adult son, Bruno (Nicolás Saavedra), seems intent on aggressively misgendering her. Some of the aggressions are less overt: One police detective assures Marina that she’s been dealing with people like her for years but is still suspicious about the bruises Orlando got from falling down the stairs, and she pressures Marina into allowing herself to be photographed naked, just to rule out the possibility of foul play.

Marina’s body is a perpetual subject of fascination to A Fantastic Woman’s characters and, to a lesser extent, for the film itself. As Marina reckons with her grief over Orlando’s death, the connections that bound them are systematically severed by his family. First his ex-wife demands his car. Then she informs Marina, who hasn’t even finished moving into Orlando’s apartment, that she needs to move out. Bruno is more aggressive, turning up in the apartment unannounced and grabbing Marina by the shoulders, later leaving the coffee table strewn with open bottles of alcohol and half-eaten pizza. (Their bigotry isn’t solely a function of age: Orlando’s brother, played by Luis Gnecco, has no problem accepting Marina as she is.) Marina clings to the few connections she can retain: the dog she and Orlando both loved, a mysterious key found in his car, and the memories that periodically vault him into her mind’s eye. But as those tendrils are snipped away, she is laid bare, both emotionally and physically, and forced into gendered spaces where her body is very much at issue.

Vega navigates these spaces with confidence and poise. Lelio and Maza reworked the role to hew closer to Vega’s own experience, and while some of the scenes require more in the way of a dramatic flourish, often the camera is simply trained on her face as she takes in the magnitude of her loss. She looks back at us, too—sometimes invitingly, sometimes with a hint of a challenge, as if questioning what right we have to intrude on a such a private moment. It’s a reminder that as much as a film can open doors, there are places we’re allowed into only by the grace of our hosts, and that permission can be withdrawn at any moment.

All along, Marina is confronted with images of herself—not people like herself, of whom none seem to appear, excepting a brief scene in a gay bar—but reflections in rearview mirrors, in the sides of buildings, in a wobbly sheet of glass that warps and distorts as two workmen carry it down the street, and finally in a small, circular mirror placed right between her legs, reflecting her face back to itself. She simply is who she is, and whatever comes after that is an imposition.

Read more in Slate about the Oscars.