The Danish Girl (dir. Tom Hooper)

Posted: January 4, 2016 in Uncategorized

“The Danish Girl” is a heavily fictionalized account of a real-life person who, in the late 1920s or early 1930s, became one of the first people to undergo sexual reassignment surgery.  I’m sure the story of this woman, Lili Elbe, would be very interesting to see made into a film. Sadly, “The Danish Girl” doesn’t appear to do this woman justice. Instead, we get a film that seemingly thinks it is pro-transgender persons while, in actuality, it portrays one as an unlikable narcissistic who doesn’t seem to actually be trans, but demands everyone bend over backwards to accommodate her. When the film ends with a “tribute” of sorts to this woman, it only reveals the filmmakers’ tone-deafness.


The plot involves a man named Einar (Eddie Redmayne) and his wife, Gerda (Alicia Vikander), who are both artists in the rather liberal, Bohemian world of late 20s Copenhagen, Denmark.  I know very little about what Copenhagen was actually like in the 1920s, but this film portrays it as being the classier, period-equivalent of the 60s New York art scene, as opposed to perhaps the upper-crust, and stuffy connotations we may associate with moneyed society in the early 20th century (Roaring 20s affluent heterosexual debauchery notwithstanding).  This is worth nothing simply because while the film wants us to look upon Lili, as Einar is known upon transitioning to female, as being brave for her actions, the film doesn’t actually make it seem, beyond two ruffians in a park and some reactionary medical and psychiatric professionals, that it’s much of a risk for Lili to be who she is.  The film makes 20s Copenhagen seem like a place that Andy Warhol and Truman Capote would find comfortable to inhabit.  In any event, one day Gerda has Einar wear women’s clothing to take the place of a model that hasn’y shown up to be painted. In a weird conflation of transsexuality and transvestitism, the film makes it seem like Einar’s tactile enjoyment of wearing women’s clothes is what sparks his journey into wanting to be a woman, and only later does the film attempt to clarify that Einar had the feelings of being a woman much earlier.  It doesn’t help that the film gives us close-ups of Einar running his hands through women’s costumes at a theater, thus focusing us on the clothing aspect.  If I didn’t know better, I’d say the filmmakers are actually clueless as to the fact that transsexuals and transvestites are two completely different things, and one does not exist as a gateway to another.  I do not claim to be an expert on trans individuals, but I have known a few and it seems wholly inaccurate to assume a tactile enjoyment of wearing female clothes sparks one’s feelings that they are the opposite gender inside to the one they were born into this world as.


Gerda, being a loving and fairly accepting wife, goes along with the initial transvestitism.  She has sex with Einar while he wears her satin (or silk) nighty, and tshe even agrees to let Einar dress as a woman to go to a social event that Einar would otherwise prefer not to attend.  It’s at this event, dressed reasonably convincingly as a woman (bearing a slight resemblance to Jessica Chastain, in fact) that Lili, as Einar form there on prefers to be called, kisses a young man.  This is cheating, and yet when confronted by Gerda, Lili completely straw mans her issues with infidelity by changing the subject to him being a woman inside and her being unsupportive.


This film confuses a lot of things.  Lili is presented to us as a transsexual, but the build up is all about transvestitism. Then the film seems to not know what to do with Lili’s sexuality.  Is she gay, because she (allegedly) loves her wife, or straight because she pursues relationships with men and seems to take it for granted that, as a woman, she must be with men.  This is an oddly reactionary position on sexuality for a film that’s trying to embrace transsexuality and also be a love story between Lili and Gerda.


It’s also odd that we have this ongoing theme of performance and art as artifice, as if the film is trying to undercut Lili as a trans individual by also making it seem like Lili is simply a performance.  Einar’s first inclination toward female clothing is with costumes at a playhouse (or ballet studio, it’s not quite clear). Einar first poses as a woman in front of a mirror at this place as well.  Later, he goes to a peep show and mimics a nude woman behind glass performing, as if that is anything close to an authentic depiction of a woman: erotic performance for the sexual gratification of men.  Einar, in becoming Lili, also places a lot of emphasis on mimicking women he sees and adapting tics, gestures, and affectations.  If anything, as Lili she comes across less like a person who is a woman on the inside and more like a man performing as a woman, in the way a drag queen is a man acting as a woman but not A WOMAN in the way a trans person IS a woman and not ACTING as a woman.  Beyond the character stuff of Einar/Lili, we see her as an artist frustrated at not being able to capture the same damn painting no matter how much she repaints it over and over again, and later she wails that “I want to be a woman, not a painter”, as if they are mutually exclusive and one cannot be both (which Gerda, to her credit, calls Lili out on).

The film is really the story of how a man who likes to wear women’s clothing decides to live as a woman, cheat on his wife, and expect everyone around him to put their own wants, wishes, and feelings aside to do what he wants, and it’s appauling because A) real trans people are not like this B) the real Lili was certainly not like this, and C) the filmmakers seem to THINK they are portraying a real, sympathetic trans person and are ignorant of what a negative portrayal of a trans person they have committed to film.


If anything, this film is about the infinite patience of loved ones who put up with selfish assholes in their lives.  Gerda is a little jealous of Einar’s professional success, but otherwise spends the entire film as a loving and understanding partner who tries to support her husband as he becomes she.  Gerda is reluctant to cheat where Lili has no such reluctance, and Gerda cares for Lili’s feelings and well-being whereas Lili seems to barely even pay lip service to Gerda’s wishes.  Gerda gets frustrated with Lili throughout the film, but seems to still have the patience of saint.


Let me be clear: “The Danish Girl” is enjoyable and almost fascinating to watch.  The direction focuses your attention in a keen way, and the film is visually nice to look at. The performances are spot-on for what the film requires of them, and Eddie Redmayne does an admirable job playing an unlikable character, while Vikander shows, after “Ex Machina” and “The Man From UNCLE”, that she has a decent amount of range and has a really bright future in acting ahead of her.  The music works to set the time period and a tone of sadness that feels as true as the screenplay reads false.  This is, in an unusual way, a good film that is a complete and utter failure at what it attempts to accomplish, and all of its sins exist at the screenplay level, in a boneheaded script written by Lucinda Coxon.  I am not familiar with any of Coxon’s other work, so I don’t know if the sins of the script are her own, or that she was simply working from poor source material, adapting the fictional novel by David Ebershoff that was inspired by the real Lili.  Certainly director Tom Hooper, who directed “The King’s Speech” (Unseen by me out of spite for it winning Best Picture in a year when “The Social Network” deserved to win and didn’t glamorize royalty or Nazi sympathizers) and the film adaptation of the musical “Les Miserables”, in which his direction was original and unusual (numerous extreme close-ups in a musical about the masses, live singing on set as-filmed) but didn’t quite work because of his own originality.  My guess is Hooper and Coxon know next-to-nothing about transgender individuals, and assumed the affluent, educated persons who would sit down to watch an art house film about one would come in very supportive and give Lili enough of a benefit that they didn’t have to work on making Lili either sympathetic, likable, or even authentically trans.  They just has to set her up as against a cruel and unfair world that doesn’t let her be what she wants to be, and we’d be on her side.  Sorry film, you miscalculated.


The real Lili was no doubt actually trans.  No one undergoes risky, experimental surgery to have ovaries and a uterus implanted in their body if they do not know, in their deepest reaches of their heart, that they are not the gender they were born into.  This film does the real Lili a gruesome disservice, and some changes, like having Lili die of the general sexual reassignment surgery and not the later surgeries she actually died of, are baffling.  This movie is an utterly bizarre and wrongheaded failure, but an entertaining and good-looking failure that is worth seeing just because it’s a fascinating trainwreck at the screenplay level.  I “liked” it, if that even means anything, but it does not succeed in any conventional sense, and may even be offensive to trans people who see it.  I’m giving it the relatively high rating of a B, but keep in mind that there’s a big fucking asterisk next to that letter grade.


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