“I have known very few people in my life, and you’re two of them.”
That’s what Parisian art dealer Hans Axgil (Matthias Schoenaerts) tells Lili Elbe (Eddie Redmayne) — formerly his childhood friend Einar Wegener — in The Danish Girl, a film that’s at once beautiful in cinematography, stunning in its performances (most especially Redmayne, coming off his Best Actor Oscar as Stephen Hawking in The Theory of Everything) … and problematic in other ways.
I’m allergic to films “based on a true story” and often avoid them, because the director and writer almost always have the hubris to take liberties with the story, as if real life can’t be better than fiction, as if the true story isn’t good enough to stand on its own. Even more so when the film is based on a novel based on the true story (David Ebershoff’s 2000 book of the same name). But I was drawn to this film in part because of the subject matter — Elbe is one of the first known people, if not the first, to undergo what was once known as sex-change surgery, gender reassignment surgery and, these days, gender affirmation surgery; partially because the first photos released of Redmayne in the role over the summer were astounding, and the trailer even more so.
As a moviegoer and transperson (non-op/pre-op female), I can tell you that the latest from director Tom Hooper (the Oscar-winner for The King’s Speech) is a strong film on first blush, at times difficult to sit through — but, with some time to let it soak in, too self-consciously artistic, striving too hard to be high art rather than focus on the subject matter, and ultimately not powerful enough. It could have been a whole lot more. The real-life story of Wegener/Elbe and wife Gerda, with its triumphs and tragedies, packs even more of a punch than what we see on the screen.
The dates of the film are left unspecified, which allows Hooper and screenwriter Lucinda Coxon to play with the timeline — and, in this case, compress it.
In real life, the Wegeners were wed in 1904, when he was about 21 and she 18, and Lili’s identity is revealed publicly in 1913. The impression one gets watching the film is that the story takes place in the 1910s or Twenties — more like the Twenties, since there’s no reference to the Great War, and the fashion seems to fall somewhere between the two decades.
In any instance, the film opens in Copenhagen, beautifully, colorfully presented by Hooper and cinematographer Danny Cohen, regardless of the weather, as a landscape — which is Einar’s specialty, for which he has earned himself a degree of renown.
He’s happily married to Gerda (Alicia Vikander), an illustrator and portrait artist who subtly flaunts convention. She’s clearly a strong woman, used to assuming some of what was then the man’s role in society. For one, there’s her smoking. For another, she tells a friend at a party that she was the one who asked Einar out, as he was painfully shy. And in a rare bit of humor, she tells a nervous portrait subject as he poses for her, “It’s hard for a man to be looked at by a woman, to … submit to a woman’s gaze.” She then commands “Sit!,” to which he sits up sharply — but it’s clear she’s talking to her dog, out of his sight. (And in real life, Gerda was also believed to have had a fondness for women, which also would’ve been scandalous back then.)
She longs to have her works represented by a gallery, especially in Paris. But one local owner, Rasmussen (Adrian Schiller), tells her that he sees nothing there, that she has to find her muse.
And her muse comes to her — hiding in plain sight all along.
Needing to finish a painting of a ballerina, but with the model nowhere to be found, she asks hubby to put on the stockings and shoes so she can finish the legs. He laughs and smiles and obliges. Any male-to-female who has longed for such a moment — that lightning-bolt instant when she can pull up the stockings and slip into an elegant pair of shoes for the first time — can appreciate the tension and apprehension Redmayne conveys as the hairy-legged Einar steps into the white silk hose and the golden slippers, his legs becoming those of a different person. It’s as if a million unused synapses fire all at once, at least as many feelings are unleashed — a sensation intensified because he gets to do this with not just the approval, but the asking, of his wife.
It becomes a thing for both. Einar begins to pose for her regularly, putting his work on the back burner to serve his wife, as he unveils the Lili that’s been inside his body for a lifetime; Gerda, feeling a liberation nearly as strong, is enamored with the new girl in her life — one who is as close to her as the other side of the bed — and her new subject uncorks an energy inside her that’s downright erotic.
And from that moment of bliss, the story jumps straight into the awkward stage of transition — a bit of growing pain for both parties — as it diverges somewhat from real life.
With loving help from Gerda with wardrobe, wig and makeup, Lili accompanies her to the artists’ ball, a huge Copenhagen social event in their sphere. Lili — who shows a fumbling shyness that is also familiar to transwomen, myself included in the early phases — accompanies Gerda as Einar’s cousin. (In real life, she was presented as Einar’s sister.) Lili catches the eye of one young artist, Henrik (Ben Whishaw), who is captivated by her exotic, fragile beauty.
“You’re different from other women,” he says, and Lili, while shyly smiling, is also scared to death. Especially when Henrik gently forces a kiss upon Lili — just as Gerda, looking for her “cousin,” walks into the room.
And as the story progresses, it becomes clear that the couple is wading into then-uncharted waters. Einar explains that he, playing the girl,
once kissed his childhood friend Hans — and Hans’ father walked in on them and beat his son. While Einar and Lili have been a very loving couple, Lili’s trying to figure out his/her sexuality. Gerda is perplexed and scared. On one level, she loves Lili, loves the beauty of Lili, loves painting her, and loves the naked honesty that this revelation has brought. But, as has been experienced by so many couples where the husband comes out, there are extreme tensions, spoken and unspoken, that need to be confronted.
From there, in the film, Rasmussen connects Gerda with a gallery in Paris, the couple moves there, and she and her pictures of Lili become a huge hit. (In real life, they’ve already moved to Paris, where it’s revealed that Lili is her spouse, and Lili lives as an out woman. In the film, Lili continues to be presented as Einar’s cousin, and only reveals her true identity to Gerda and to Hans — a fictional character), who Gerda has tracked down in the hope of better understanding her husband/wife.)
And as Lili and Gerda try to figure out what’s wrong with him/her (and remember, we’re watching this with 2015 eyes, not the 1920s, when no
one knew what to make of all this), the tension that comes with a gnawing sense of desperation (not to mention a bevy of shrinks who misdiagnose Einar as a sexual deviant, a homosexual and a schizophrenic) eventually leads Lili to a doctor in Dresden who attempts something that’s never been done before. (And two more bits of artistic license. While it seems to be a relatively quick turn of events in the movie, in real life it took Lili nearly two decades to go from first appearance to surgery. And in real life, it was two doctors, four surgeries; in the film, one doctor, two procedures.)
The acting in The Danish Girl is brilliant, making you overlook the story if you know it already. The Swedish-born Vikander, who’s hot right now (she’s in three projects slated for next year, including a new Bourne sequel), succeeds in capturing a self-assured woman whose armor is
punctured by the gentlest of souls. As is the case with Redmayne, Hooper and Cohen focus on many tight facial shots of her — showcasing not only a wide range of expressions, from pure love to anger to confusion to fear, but a dark-eyed, full-faced beauty that belongs in a photo from a century ago. A Supporting Actress Oscar nomination is not out of the realm.
Redmayne? In two short films, he has revealed himself to be a master of transformation; think total immersion a la Daniel Day-Lewis. In The Theory of Everything, his Hawking very slowly, convincingly, seamlessly deteriorated physically before our eyes and, for all intents, became the physicist the world knows. In The Danish Girl, while he looks nothing like the real-life Wegener/Elbe (nor, for that matter, does Vikander look like Gerda), his delicate, feminine, expressive features convey all the emotional and physical stages of gender transition — or, as I can relate to, a second adolescence: the acute apprehension that comes with bottling up one’s identity for so long, the exhilaration of coming out, the awkward first steps (literally, in heels) into womanhood, the fright of being outed, the fear of the feelings he feels as he tries to figure out his/her sexual identity, the tears of anguish as the layers of Einar are peeled back to reveal the inner Lili, the sadness over the toll it takes on the marriage, the full-stride confidence Lili feels with each passing day.
I’ve read in places that some people were concerned, perhaps upset, with the casting of a nontrans actor in a trans role. I have no problem with Redmayne, just as I have no problem with Jeffrey Tambor in Transparent. This, like the Netflix series, or like Felicity Huffman in Transamerica, is a story of a transition in progress, not a finished work. He has the features to pull off both masculine and feminine convincingly (and this story took place before synthetic hormones were created), the sensitivity to play Einar into Lili with much dexterity and great respect, and, as we know now for certain, the ability to immerse himself in a role so deeply that we forget he’s playing a role. Back-to-back Oscars? Who would bet against it?
Besides, the acting distracts the viewer from the film’s flaws.
The pace is too slow in spots, the imagery sometimes overly beautiful and gentle, and despite some moments that are emotionally painful to watch (especially if you’ve been through some of this yourself, or know others who have), much is glossed over. Gerda’s story, for example, is subverted to the point of nearly being a footnote, when her tale is just as harrowing and, ultimately, as tragic as Lili’s. But then, you wouldn’t know that from seeing this film. Lili is shown in great detail, of course, but compressing the timeline from first pose as Lili to the surgery keeps us from feeling some of the extreme anguish, the anxiety, the frustration, that comes with a journey as prolonged and as previously untraveled as hers.
These days, the process of the MTF surgery, whatever you want to call it, is relatively streamlined and commonplace. It generally follows a formula: Go through X amount of emotional therapy, start hormone-replacement therapy, live the real-life experience for a certain time period (say, a year), arrange for the surgery, fly off to Thailand or Montreal with $10K in cash (or around $25K in the States, unless you’re lucky enough to now have health insurance that covers it), the doctor cuts into the penis and creates a vagina, the patient is stitched up, and after a few days of healing, she can go home to live her new life.
Lili Elbe’s story is at ground zero of the process — of modern transgender study, period. She was the first we know of, and The Danish Girl is a gripping reminder of the courage it took for her to be herself, to take the first step for countless thousands of women to come, and the price she paid for doing so. However, the creators trump the story with atmosphere. They present this more as a prestige film than a story, gussy it up as such, and seem to grab the viewer and point and proclaim, “This. Is. An. Important. Film.” It sticks to high-art conventions and rules while trying to tell the tale of two free-spirited, rule-breaking artists. Unfortunately, what we end up with, rather than Gerda’s vivid portaits of Lili, a woman very much alive, is Einar and his gentle, somewhat-stunted. bucolic landscapes. The acting can only mask this so much.