A Fantastic Woman is one of the most important films of the year, in large part because director Sebastián Lelio went to great efforts to make sure that not only was a transgender woman starring in a transgender role, but that the performance was authentic to the film and to the story of its protagonist. In a few short years, it feels as if the film industry has come a long way from the traditional casting of cisgender males playing transgender females, and films such as A Fantastic Woman go a long way toward inspiring transgender youth in ways that the industry may never fully understand.
Never mind the fact that the movie is a current Oscar nominee for Best Foreign Language Film, although it goes without saying that opportunities of this sort have typically been scarce for transgender people, especially with a performance in the leading role. The tide seems to be turning as of late, with films like A Fantastic Woman, Tangerine, and the L.A. Film Festival-premiering And Then There Was Eve (still awaiting distribution) offering the chance for film goers to see a trans person deliver a starring performance.
Marina Vidal (Daniela Vega) is a waitress and an aspiring singer. She’s in love with her boyfriend Orlando (Francisco Reyes), a much older man, and the two of them are planning for what lies ahead. The textile executive promises her a trip for two to the Iguazu Falls. But things aren’t meant to be, as Orlando falls ill while the two of them are celebrating Marina’s birthday, and dies just before they reach the hospital. In the matter of a moment, Marina’s life is turned upside down.
It’s not just the fact that Marina lost her boyfriend that has her feeling troubled about life, but the way that seemingly the entire world is out to get her — be it the doctors, Orlando’s family, or a police investigator from the Sexual Offenses Unit who refers to Marina as a “woman like you.” It doesn’t matter who it is, because everybody she encounters has something against her. Marina isn’t even allowed the decency of attending her boyfriend’s own funeral, as Orlando’s daughter, Sonia (Aline Küppenheim) is “just looking out” for her family members. Making matters worse, Marina is dead-named — the degrading process of using a transgender person’s former name — by Orlando’s family members. Orlando’s son Bruno (Nicolás Saavedra) gives her a mere matter of days to leave the flat where she lived with Orlando.
Orlando’s family is like that of so many other families in their rejection of transgender people as abominations, or even worse, as perverts. But despite their convictions, there’s nothing more disrespectful and humiliating than to to be treated as less of a person. What it does to one’s own psyche can be damaging in its own right. This film critic is transgender, and understands all too well what Marina experiences in the film, having to deal with a substantial amount of transphobia in day-to-day life. Because of this, it’s fair to say just how much of a battle it is in order to become the strong women that we know we are.
Lelio directs the film from a script he co-wrote with Gonzalo Maza. Despite the two writers being cisgender, the film is highly authentic and representative of the transgender experience. Because of the filmmakers not being trans themselves, it was of paramount importance that the screenwriting duo got the story right. In fact, Vega was given the chance to consult on the script before being given the opportunity to take the role. (As a trans film critic, one of the things I’m asked most often by cis writers is what can they do to help better represent the trans community onscreen, and the most important way would be to hand over those opportunities to transgender people, where they can tell their own stories.)
To say that Vega is marvelous in her portrayal of Marina is nothing short of an understatement. She’s an inspiration to transgender and non-binary people across the globe, all while delivering the performance of a lifetime. No matter what she is doing in the film, Vega brings so much to the role — one that comes off as perfectly natural for her. When Aretha Franklin’s “(You Make Me Feel Like) A Natural Woman” plays on the radio in the background of one scene, it’s a beautiful moment in the film, arriving at just the right time. It doesn’t even feel like a stunt musical cue, it just feels perfect with everything that Marina goes through as a character.
And even though he’s such a small part of the film, it’s great to see a character (and a man) like Orlando in love with Marina without ever growing insecure in his sexuality, as he expresses his attraction to a transgender woman. For everyone who preaches that “love is love,” there’s going to be that person who is unsure of their feelings the moment they actually become involved with a transgender person. There ought to be more people in the universe like Orlando, rather than the members of his family, and it’s a point the film makes powerfully.
Trans stories are important and need to be told. Even though this film was written by cis screenwriters, what they did in casting was by far better than what happens in so many other film productions. Vega goes above and beyond through her performance in A Fantastic Woman, and while her turn and the film are equally important in what they mean to the industry, it’s also the role of a lifetime.