It’s not often that a film begins with a trans person in the spotlight. Within minutes of A Fantastic Woman’s opening, Daniela Vega’s Marina is established as someone worthy of desire and admiration. She holds the attention of a crowd—and particularly of her partner, Orlando—as she sings in a hotel bar, and soon afterward, when Orlando takes her out to celebrate her birthday, she is literally applauded. Though we only catch a glimpse of it early on, their life together is characterized by tender moments of intimacy and affection.
That happiness is cut short after Orlando collapses unexpectedly in their shared apartment. When he dies in the hospital later that night, Marina is suddenly faced with suspicion and contempt. Over the course of the film, she is scrutinized and stereotyped by a detective, who informs her that she’s worked with “people—sorry, women like you” for decades, and excised from the narrative of Orlando’s life by his ex-wife, who bars her from the funeral, omits her from his obituary, and deems their relationship a “perversion.” These hardships, while heightened to cinematic extremes, are also painfully familiar: To be questioned, othered, and erased by turns is part of the modern trans experience. Yet unlike the many trans tragedies we’ve seen on screen, A Fantastic Woman allows its protagonist to fight back—and to win.
A Fantastic Woman is now favored to win Best Foreign Language Film next month, but it is by no means the first trans narrative to gain recognition from the academy. Eddie Redmayne, who played Lili Elbe in 2015’s The Danish Girl, was just the latest in a long line of “brave” cisgender men to receive an Oscar nod for his portrayal of a trans woman—a tradition that stretches back to the 1976 nomination of Chris Sarandon for Dog Day Afternoon and through to John Lithgow for The World According to Garp, Jaye Davidson for The Crying Game, and Jared Leto for Dallas Buyers Club. In 2014, Sarandon told the Los Angeles Times about his preparation for the role, which apparently consisted of a spaghetti dinner. As he tells it, he asked a gay friend, “Do you know anybody in the tranny community?” Then, having made pasta and asked “questions like when was the first time you came out in drag,” he evidently deemed himself ready to represent them on screen.
Fortunately, director Sebastián Lelio wasn’t quite so cavalier with A Fantastic Woman—and the most obvious thing that makes this film unprecedented among Oscar nominees is that Vega herself is trans. Lelio and his co-writer Gonzalo Maza worked closely with her, drawing on her lived experiences for Marina’s arc, and it shows. The film acknowledges the struggles the trans community actually faces without rendering Marina a powerless victim. The injustices she contends with aren’t designed to elicit pity so much as righteous anger—and despite those indignities, her demands are ultimately met.
Getting to that point isn’t easy, and the precise way her journey is depicted is crucial. A police officer at the hospital is the first to cast doubt on Marina’s identity, demanding to see her ID when he’s unsatisfied by the name she offers. Her legal name change, as she explains, is still pending—a humiliating, all-too-familiar setback, and one many trans people have to contend with even when their social transition is well underway. But her birth name isn’t spoken here, and Marina is no less of a woman in the audience’s eyes for not having cleared this arbitrary bureaucratic barrier.
Perhaps most unusually for a film about a trans person, we don’t know whether she’s had any kind of gender confirmation surgery. This isn’t for lack of inquiry: Orlando’s son, Bruno, demands to know whether she’s had “the operation,” claiming that without that knowledge, he can’t know what she is. Marina holds her ground, refusing to disclose, and the film pointedly avoids satisfying Bruno’s voyeuristic fascination. Later, when the detective from the Sexual Offenses Unit insists that Marina be photographed naked, we see the investigator’s eyes dart down, but Lelio’s camera doesn’t follow.
Ultimately, the cruelty and preposterousness of those who deny her identity is made plain. They’re the villains of this story. And Lelio’s careful, compassionate framing never suggests that we should see her as anything other than what she is and has always been, irrespective of law or anatomy: a woman.
All of this is important because “proving” one’s gender really is a process overburdened by protocol. In America, just changing your name means hundreds of dollars in fees and a day in court, and updating documents afterward is equally arduous. The wait times and costs associated with surgery and hormone therapy are even more outrageous—and often necessary if you want to alter the gender marker on your ID, despite the fact that not every trans person has the resources or inclination to pursue medical transition.
Given the messiness of litigating trans identities in real life, the fact that Marina is unquestionably a woman before the state or a doctor declares that to be the case feels noteworthy and vital. It stands in sharp contrast to The Danish Girl, which dwells on its protagonist’s anatomy, and in which she is only consistently called by the appropriate name and pronouns after her first surgery, when she’s deemed to have become “a real woman.” Even in the screenplay itself (and 70 pages in, at that), Lili is still referred to as “Einar” and “he” when she’s forced to present in a masculine way because her documents might be checked at the German border.
Also unlike The Danish Girl, A Fantastic Woman doesn’t invent hardships. The former features a disturbing scene in which Lili undergoes radiotherapy to “cure” her of her gender identity. In real life, as CN Lester points out in the book Trans Like Me, the treatment was intended to serve the opposite purpose. Doctors believed that she might have ovaries that could be stimulated by radiation and that a natural transition would follow if so—her wife, Gerda, paid for the procedure because she thought it would facilitate her transition, not stymie it. But Hollywood has certain expectations about what trans lives should look like, and The Danish Girl delivers. In the film, Gerda is a blindsided and beleaguered partner-in-name-only, and Lili deliberately shuts herself off from the world. You’d hardly know that the two lived a happy, sociable, bohemian life together in Paris for years before they parted ways. Marina, by contrast, has co-workers, a sister, a mentor, and a (mostly) well-meaning brother-in-law to look out for her. She’s grieving the death of a loved one, but she’s still loved by others in turn, and has a life to come back to when she’s ready for it.
Where The Danish Girl only allows its protagonist to be celebrated as a martyr, A Fantastic Woman ends on a determinedly triumphant note. Just as she captivated Orlando at the outset, Marina, back in the spotlight before a crowded concert hall, leaves her audience enthralled. After years of waiting for a moment like this one, I couldn’t help feeling awestruck, too.