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A Fantastic Woman begins with tragedy. After they spend the night together, a singer, Marina Vidal, has to rush her older boyfriend to the hospital—only to watch him die of a heart attack.

“My co-writer [Gonzalo Maza] and I were playing around with the idea of what would happen if the person you love dies in your arms. That’s the worst place for that person to die,” director Sebastian Lelio explains. But the story really clicked when they decided to make their main character a trans woman: “I had the idea that I’m going to make a trans-genre film about a transgender woman,” he says.

Lelio wasn’t actually casting the film yet when he met its eventual star, Chilean actress and singer Daniela Vega, who is trans. He initially brought her on as a cultural consultant, someone who could “bring the trans reality into some parts of the script,” Vega says. “And had I not been trans, the result would have been different.”

Gradually, though, Lelio and his co-writer began to see a greater potential for Vega. “We’re noticing the script started to absorb a few things from Daniela,” he says. “By the end of the writing process, I realized that she was the one—that Daniela was Marina.”

In the original draft of the script, Marina sang pop music. Vega, on the other hand, is a classically trained opera singer. “One day,” Lelio says, “two weeks before we started shooting, she came into my office and slammed the door behind her and said, ‘You have to listen to me.’ And she sang an aria a cappella. And I was like, ‘Go away, go out of here, because I need to change the script.’”

Marina’s trans identity is not incidental—it’s vital to A Fantastic Woman. After her lover dies, his family treats her with hostility and forbids her from coming to the funeral, wondering aloud if he’d had some sort of fetish. A police detective asks Marina if she was paid, or if her relationship with the man was abusive. The film “is about how we moralize love,” says Vega, “and which bodies may be inhabited and conquered even if some people claim it is not possible.”

But though it grapples with serious subject matter, it’s difficult to pin A Fantastic Woman to any one genre. “The film itself has an identity that is oscillating and changing in front of your eyes,” Lelio says. Many parts of it are dreamlike, with Vega jumping on top of a car, leaning into the wind far beyond her center of gravity, and donning a flashy, sequined outfit for an impromptu dance sequence in a club. “It’s somewhere else,” he says. “It’s not real; it’s visiting metaphor in a very straightforward way. I wanted to hypnotize the spectator, so that they would say, ‘What was that?’—but at the same time be really taken by the story, touched, and moved by the character, by Marina.”

And moved they have been: A Fantastic Woman won both the Teddy Award and the Silver Bear at the Berlin International Film Festival in February, and it was nominated for a best-foreign-language-film Golden Globe. Chile also selected the movie as its submission for this year’s best-foreign-film Oscar. Perhaps the story resonates so deeply because Vega is trans, a revolutionary choice in an industry that traditionally casts cisgender actors in transgender roles—and Lelio knew that if he was going to go this route, he needed to do it right.

“The fact that I am trans provides the script and narrative with a higher level of truth,” Vega says. “But, more importantly, it opens a door into the movie world that had never been explored before, because I am a trans actress playing a trans woman.”

“At the center,” says Lelio, “there is a real heart beating—which is Daniela’s heart.”

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