Chilean film Una Mujer Fantástica, from filmmaker Sebastián Lelio, stood out at 2017's Berlinale for a number of reasons. Not only was it moving and powerful, but it approaches telling its hero's story with one smart, important casting choice — something one other film at the Berlin Film Festival couldn't manage.
The movie follows Marina Vidal, played by Daniela Vega, a trans woman whose older, cis male lover, Orlando, dies unexpectedly, leaving her to settle his affairs with his bigoted family. It's a story told in Pedro Almódovar-esque style — with rich reds and yellows backgrounding an emotional, romantic thriller — but the choice of protagonist is what makes the movie work.
Vitally, Vega is a trans actress; her forceful presence as Marina demonstrates the value of casting trans actors in trans roles, rather than granting cis actors the vanity merit badge of playing below their privilege. Una Mujer Fantástica feels very much on Marina's side, witness to the unearned insults against her character and her agency from her lover's family. The narrative is bookended by Vivaldi's "Sposa son disprezzata" — "I am a scorned wife" — grounding Marina in a tragic seriousness that Orlando's family can't fathom.
Another film at this year's Berlinale featuring a trans character was Close-Knit (Karera ga Honki de Amu toki wa), a Japanese film about Tomo, a young girl left in the care of her uncle and his girlfriend, Rinko, a trans woman who has yet to change her legal gender. Rinko is played by Toma Ikuta, a cis male actor, a choice that makes an otherwise beautiful and heartwarming film into a problematic fave.
Partly for the sake of its 10-year-old protagonist, Close-Knit goes more deeply into trans body questions than any trans-centric film needs to — or really ought to — as Rinko enumerates her surgeries and explains the mechanics of gender confirmation surgery. The same line of curiosity is flatly denied in Una Mujer Fantástica. "You don't ask those questions," Marina states plainly.
The bodily inquiry in Una Mujer Fantástica comes in a more disturbing form: before the camera of a criminal medical investigator. The investigator suspects that Marina must be a prostitute or a victim of abuse because of her relationship with the much older Orlando. She submits to the medical humiliation of displaying her body to a man who asks whether or not to call her by the male name on her driver's license.
This painfully exposing scene illustrates the bureaucratic humiliations of everyday trans life, and makes the viewer a witness to them. Marina lives a perfectly ordinary life, questioned only by the intrusions of doctors, police officers and the bigots related to the deceased. At one point, Orlando's sister screams at Marina, shooing her out of a funeral service, "Have you no respect for people's pain?"
Many might argue that playing trans — or gay, or physically impaired, or any other marginalized individual — ought to be a question of acting ability, not personal identity. During a panel at the 2014 New Yorker Festival, showrunners Jenji Kohan and Jill Soloway debated this question with respect to the writers' room. To Soloway's stated aim of hiring a trans writer for Amazon's Transparent, Kohan argued, "What you are in life shouldn't automatically make you what you do in your art. It doesn't necessarily translate." But the point, Soloway countered, is based more in historical structures of power: "I wouldn't want a man to say, 'I can have a writers' room full of men and we can write women just fine.'"
Of course, writing and acting trans characters are different challenges; however well-written the project, the increased visibility of trans characters should enable the increased visibility of trans actors. In response to openly gay actor Matt Bomer's casting as a trans sex worker in the upcoming film Anything, trans actress Laverne Cox invoked bell hooks' famous characterization of "imperialist white-supremacist capitalist patriarchy," adding, "It's about business." Mya Taylor, star of the 2015 film Tangerine, was even more direct, telling Cosmopolitan it was "horrible" that Eddie Redmayne received an Oscar nomination for The Danish Girl.
In Una Mujer Fantástica, Daniela Vega's Marina brims with righteous self-determination; she softens, reluctantly, but never dims in her resolve. Vega's tremendous acting ability can hardly be separated from the humanity and emotional veracity she imparts on Marina, a pained vibrancy and fortitude that I don't believe any cis actor ought to presume to be able to access.
Compare the film to The Danish Girl — with any luck among the last of the "brave cishet male actor" genre which now includes Eddie Redmayne and Jared Leto — one feels the moneyed, moral mediocrity of the Hollywood machine. But to compare these two films at all supports a false notion of queer genre, as though every film or piece of television about a queer life belongs to a narrative or even ideological canon. Functionally, they do — queer narrative media remains a narrow enough field to earn a Netflix subcategory — but Brokeback Mountain has as much to do with Will & Grace as Love, Actually has to do with Cheers.
This very piece is guilty of the same canonical compare-and-contrast, even to the point of comparing a film about a bereaved woman (Una Mujer Fantástica) to a film about a motherless child (Close-Knit) simply because both feature trans characters. There is value in grading culture on a curve, tracking the arc of the moral universe as it bends toward faithful representation in media, but it can be reductive, and the rubric is limiting.
The true representational finish line may be casting Daniela Vega, Laverne Cox, Hari Nef or any other trans actor in a cis role with no medal of honor awarded to a casting director, but the very least we should be able to get right is letting trans actors play trans roles — or rather, not letting non-trans actors play them.