Critic's Notebook: Daniela Vega, a 'Fantastic Woman' Both Fragile and Fierce

A Fantastic Woman Still - Publicity - H 2017
Courtesy of BFI London Film Festival

The 28-year-old transgender actress gives an indelible slow-burn of a breakthrough performance in Chilean filmmaker Sebastien Lelio's drama of grief and identity.

Daniela Vega’s career-making performance in A Fantastic Woman is something rare: a wondrously mature and sophisticated star turn from a young screen novice. Thanks to her, Chilean director Sebastian Lelio’s stylish thriller about the ostracism suffered by a recently bereaved transgender woman blossoms into a shattering and intimate portrait of loss, queer pride and grace under pressure. 

Vega plays Marina, a lounge singer and waitress whose blissful romance with middle-aged divorcee Orlando (Francisco Reyes) is cruelly curtailed when he suffers a fatal aneurysm. Viewed as a gold-digging freak and potential murder suspect by medical staff, police and Orlando’s family, Marina is forced to maintain a facade of composure in the face of crushing grief. Tragic but beautiful, emotionally wrenching yet visually ravishing, both film and star touch the operatic heights of vintage Pedro Almodovar.

Vega’s performance is mostly a solo affair. She's present almost every scene, usually alone, frequently in distress. Mostly framed in close-up, her face becomes a mobile canvas of minute gestures, microscopic flinches and wary sideways glances. With forensic subtlety, Vega conjures something akin to the defensive armor of an exotic hunted creature accustomed to living every day in a hostile urban jungle. 

But while Vega commands the screen alone, her interactions with other actors provide some of the film’s most intense emotional flashpoints. One prickly set piece centers on Marina’s confrontation with Orlando’s son Bruno (Nicolas Saavedra) at his late father’s apartment. A tearful, suspicious Bruno turns the encounter into a psychological battle with bullying physical undertones. He bombards Marina with sexually intrusive questions, pressing her up against a wall, driven to anger by his own unacknowledged erotic urges toward her. Marina’s face maintains a tremulous neutrality throughout, struggling to contain the latent threat of violence, a calculated response that speaks to years of bitter experience.

Another standout scene depicts Marina’s fraught meeting with Orlando’s ex-wife Sonia (Aline Kuppenheim) in a subterranean parking lot, the anonymous location chosen by Sonia to hide her social embarrassment. A mutual tone of chilly politeness between the two women soon degenerates as Sonia simply cannot contain her disgust any longer, branding Marina a “perversion” and "chimera" before barring her from attending Orlando’s “civilized” funeral. Vega’s face in this moment is a tableau of finely etched micro-aggressions as Marina works hard to project a veneer of formal respect for the bereaved widow despite her jarring lack of empathy. Afterward, as the two women ride the elevator in silence, Vega’s frozen arched eyebrow speaks volumes.

Vega’s performance shifts register for the climax of A Fantastic Woman as Marina reaches the tipping point from defensive to defiant, from fragile to fierce. After her humiliating ejection from Orlando’s funeral, the embattled heroine is abducted, assaulted and subjected to homophobic abuse by his sadistic relatives. They also steal her beloved pet dog, the final insult that galvanizes Marina into fighting back.

At this point, Vega’s face hardens into a mask of vengeance, her body language more forceful, her performative femininity less confined by politely nonthreatening gender stereotypes. Glowering directly into the camera, she tears down the wall between character and actor, making us as viewers and society in general complicit in global discrimination against trans women. She's mad as hell and she's not going to take it anymore.