When we meet Marina Vidal (Daniela Vega), she is crooning a sultry number at a Santiago nightclub. A handsome older man circles her admiringly, the warmth radiating from his eyes. In that moment it is clear not only that they are lovers, but madly in love. It’s only revealed later that Marina is transgender, and by then, their bond goes unquestioned. Such is the brilliance of a Sebastián Lelio film — the couple says so much with so little, and answers to no one. Of course, it takes hard work to make something look so simple.
“The heart of the film’s identity resonates with its own character. I was trying to make a film as complex and as free as its main character, and I owe that to Dani,” Lelio said after a recent screening of “A Fantastic Woman,” one of two films about complicated women opening in the coming months from the “Gloria” director — and the only one to receive an Oscar-qualifying run this year.
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Lelio was speaking about Vega, who plays the fantastic woman in question. Her gender identity isn’t up for debate, but her fate is left in an uncertain place after her lover dies in her arms. The first act of the film is a tender love story between Marina and Orlando (Francisco Reyes), though their deep connection takes on a tragic poignance in retrospect. Once Orlando is gone, Marina is stuck cobbling the pieces of their life together. As the film unfolds, her material connections to the man she loved are slowly torn away. Orlando’s bitter family doesn’t understand what Orlando saw in Marina, and spews hateful rhetoric her way.
The violence and humiliation Marina endures is occasionally difficult to stomach, but Lelio strikes a delicate balance between sensationalist tragedy and providing a meaningful portrayal of the daily struggle many transgender people have accepted.
As a transgender woman herself, Vega was a vital creative voice on the film, beginning her collaboration with Lelio as a creative consultant before taking on the role of Marina.
Vega’s creative role, in addition to a radiant performance that’s worthy of an Oscar nomination for best actress, goes a long way in making “A Fantastic Woman” an authentic transgender film. And if any film was well-positioned to land the first Oscar nomination for a trans performer, it’s this one.
Vega placed deep trust in Lelio, whose gentle hand-holding made her feel safe to explore the film’s more vulnerable scenes. “He’s capable of reaching into the actors and bringing out the most beautiful feelings and bringing them into the world,” the actress told IndieWire. “He is the person who gave me all the confidence to say: ‘Yes, let’s do the scene without clothes, the violent scenes, the fantasy scenes.”
These more challenging scenes work, Vega said, because of the character’s emotional journey holds them together. “The movie is luminous, and it has textures that can bring you to a dark or violent place, but the center of the movie is death and love,” he said. “It has way more light than darkness. The violent scenes are made to shake this light, and to create in the eyes of the viewer a reaction of — ‘Wake up!’”
Lelio used the same word, referring to his actors as “luminous vampires.” The director’s role, he said, is to “extract things” in “an artistic battle.” “I don’t believe in characters. I think they are a way to create a crack in order to grasp something that belongs to the person that is interpreting a role. I’m more interested in the person interpreting a role than the character… The heart of the film’s identity resonates with its own character.”
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Lelio knew he struck gold with Vega as soon as he met her. They both describe an instant and intimate connection.”We fell in love immediately,” said Vega. “We were both talking about very varied things and very intimate. [It was] just like a movie within another movie.” The two spoke for about a year as Lelio was writing the script. When Vega finally read it, she was shocked to see Orlando die after page 40.
“When I came to the end, I said: ‘What is this?'” she recalled. “So I called Sebastian. And I asked him: ‘What did you do? You went crazy.'” He said he was absolutely sure, and he wanted her to be the lead actress. “So I took my purse and I partied for three days,” she said. “And when the hangover was gone, we started working.”
For now, Vega is taking her growing notoriety in stride. Whatever her Oscar chances — Sony Pictures Classics plans to campaign for the film, which is a certain frontrunner in the foreign language category — she harbors no illusions that Hollywood can bring real change for trans people. “There’s still a long way to go so that we can feel safe,” she said. “If you stay only with five movies and two TV shows and that’s it, then that’s not it. One gesture does not make a whole dance. In order to dance we need to make many gestures at the same time.”
She is optimistic, however, and will concede that “A Fantastic Woman” has potential to create empathy among moviegoers no matter how familiar they are with the trans experience. But Vega has bigger concerns. “What are you doing with your empathy?” she asked rhetorically. “Because there are a lot of Orlandos and a lot of Marinas in the world. Love doesn’t escape a trans body. We think that love is as genuine as any other, so we wanted to show it. So that we ask ourselves — ‘Why we don’t see it more often?'”