Once the camera finds Daniela Vega in “A Fantastic Woman,” it never leaves her.
The Oscar-winning Chilean drama is a watershed moment in movies. While a few other films like “The Danish Girl” have featured cisgender actors portraying trans characters, “Woman” is a rare film to feature a trans actress in a lead role. The only other one I can think of is "Tangerine," the previous film from "The Florida Project" writer-director Sean Baker.
Director Sebastian Lelio (“Gloria”) doesn’t waste that opportunity, keeping the focus on Vega and her character, a nightclub singer named Marina, in nearly every frame. Vega, who was initially hired by Lelio as a consultant on the film before being cast in the lead role, is a magnetic performer.
But, frustratingly, “Fantastic Woman” doesn’t spend as much effort on Marina’s inner life as it does on her exterior. In a way, the film is much like most of the people Marina comes across on the street, who can’t help but stare at her but don’t see the person within.
We first encounter Marina in a club, where she’s singing a song about how “your love is like yesterday’s newspaper,” which seems like a kiss-off to both an ex-lover and print journalism. She’s singing it to an older man in the audience, but tenderly. He’s Orlando (Francisco Reyes), a wealthy textiles magnate and her lover.
Later that night, Orlando suffers an aneurysm in bed. Marina rushes Orlando to the hospital, but he dies. Marina’s attempts to grieve her lost love are complicated by the presence of Orlando’s loved ones, who treat her with incomprehension and prejudice, and ban her from attending Orlando’s funeral.
The authorities, meanwhile, are automatically suspicious that Marina might have had something to do with Orlando’s death. In one infuriating scene, a seemingly sympathetic detective (Amparo Noguera) manipulates Marina into undergoing an invasive physical exam. It seems obvious that such an exam would never have happened if Marina was a cis woman.
Marina bears all these slights with stoic grace. It’s clear to the viewer that she’s spent a lifetime withstanding such micro and macroaggressions, and knows the danger of responding. Only occasionally, in private, do we see cracks in the façade.
But those occasions aren’t often enough to help us really understand Marina, who is too often defined by how those around her misjudge her. We learn that she is a professionally trained singer (Vega is a mezzo soprano, and gets to showcase that at the end of the film), and she sometimes gets out her frustration in private by boxing. But otherwise, the film keeps us at arm’s length.
Lelio’s previous feature, 2013’s “Gloria,” was a portrait of an older woman who we felt we understood inside and out by the end of the film. Yet “Fantastic Woman” doesn’t possess the psychological depth or nuance to bring Marina to life as more than just a symbol.
It’s a powerful symbol, though, and the fact that “A Fantastic Woman” exists at all is a triumph. Hopefully there will be many more films to come featuring trans performers in leading roles, and “Woman” can be looked back on as a well-meaning but flawed effort that paved the way.