Directed by Tom Hooper
Starring Eddie Redmayne, Alicia Vikander, Matthew Schoenaerts, Ben Whishaw
The Danish Girl broke my heart.
I desperately wanted to love it, I needed it to be magnificent, and was so invested in the story and subject matter before the movie began that I was akin to a toddler holding my breath, stubbornly waiting to get my own way, in some kind of celluloid- induced tantrum, just waiting to exhale. Instead of a deep exploration of the history of genital reassignment surgery and one of the pioneers of modern understanding of trans* issues, we were thrown a “pretty” movie, aimed squarely at the heterosexual audience in misfired emotional porn.
That isn’t to say that the movie should be avoided, or is unwatchable. It merely aims low, seeks out aesthetics and shallowness, and hits its mark. It is beautifully shot, the costumes are stunning, the makeup impeccable, and Eddie Redmayne does indeed make for a beautiful woman. Given the lack of trans representation in popular culture, and that most folks’ only frame of reference is the well documented, very public transition of Caitlyn Jenner, it is noteworthy and recommended as a starting point to manifest empathy and understanding. If you only see one trans movie this year… well, your options are limited, so please, have at it.
The Danish Girl is very loosely based on the true story of courageous transgender woman Lili Elbe (Eddie Redmayne) in the 1920s. Lili was born Einar Wegener, a successful Danish artist of some renown. Lili Elbe was a trans pioneer, and one of the first to undergo then-experimental gender reassignment surgery at great personal risk.
At the time that Lili began transitioning, she was married to Gerda Gottlieb (the brilliant Alicia Vikander), also a lauded Danish artist in her own right. It is through Gerda’s art that Lili first discovers a way to explore her true self, and that much of the movie is true. Sadly, this is one of few historical details that are accurate in what Focus Features describes as a “true love story”. The book of the same title was loosely based on Elbe’s autobiography, Man Into Woman, and is professed to be a fictional account, and yet the writers haven’t just taken artistic licence with the story, they’ve absolutely (re)invented it as a heterosexual love story. Unfortunately, the voice of the film is not of our heroine Lili, but of Gerda, and the attention in the early scenes is firmly fixed on the heterosexual marriage of Einar and Gerda. This is where the movie becomes problematic, and continues to be so throughout.
You see, in the long overdue, growing trend of mainstreaming queer and LGBTIQ cinema, there is sometimes a softening of reality to ensure it is palatable for vanilla, heterosexual tastes. Sex and erotic scenes are limited or censored in the extreme, for instance. In The Danish Girl we only witness representation of a heterosexual, married couple’s sexual forays. Now, Gerda has been widely documented as identifying as lesbian, and yet the opening scenes of the film emphasise the couple’s voracious sexual appetites for one another- because the straight audience needs to be able to identify with Gerda and be invested in her struggle with Lili’s transition. The movie is not about Lili’s journey at all. We don’t even get to know Lili. There’s little exploration of her as a character, and her transition is characterised by Redmayne simpering about, learning how to walk in heels, do his makeup, and casting his eyes coquettishly downward with such frequency it is irritating. While aesthetics and “passing” (as the identified gender) are often keys to transitioning, there are far weightier issues at hand, and these are not just skimmed over, but avoided altogether.
This leads to the next glaring issue, and one I personally found offensive. Redmayne breathlessly touching fabrics, rubbing up on women’s clothing and fawning over lingerie and stockings is cringe worthy at best. The fetishisation of fabrics and of women’s clothing implies sexual gender bending, cross dressing, transvestism and/or fetishism, not that of a trans identity. It is playing into the very crux of how the uninitiated see trans people – as sexual deviants – and playing into that stereotype flies in the face of progressive and educated thought. I’m going to issue a disclaimer here- I have not read Lili Elbe’s autobiography, and this may have been part of her personal journey, but given that there is little else in the film that is factual, I’m going to assume that this is yet another misstep on behalf of the writers, desperately and grubbily grabbing at their audience.
Finally, the question begging to be asked is “Why a cis gendered actor?” No. Really. Why? If we are to represent trans people in film, shouldn’t we be casting trans people to play those roles? Oh. That’s right, silly me – it’s because we want those straight dollars, huh.
Please don’t get me wrong, this movie absolutely needed to be made. It just needed to be made by someone other than Tom Hooper et al.
Lastly, the need to spell out the bleeding obvious, rather than simply letting the audience come to their own conclusions, is both irritating and insulting. It pervades throughout, to the final scene, which is so incredibly naff it’s laughable. “Let it fly.” Because we didn’t understand the symbolism at all. Because apparently film audiences are idiots. Lowest common denominator FTW, right?
A trans friend, who shall remain anonymous, told me that “…this movie isn’t for us, it’s about us.” Maybe so, but is the general public so incapable of coping with reality that we need it dumbed down for us to this extent? I don’t see how this is helping our trans brothers and sisters to be truly seen and understood. But that is quite clearly not the intention. And if your intention is to see a beautifully shot, aesthetically pleasing film that makes your heart flutter, please do see it. If you know nothing of trans journeys, and seek to know more, please see it. Your alternatives are limited, but I’d suggest a great night in, binge watching Trans*parent instead.
*Please note that the word trans is used here, to include all non-binary genders and to describe the broad range of gender nonconforming identities. If you want to know more, Google is your friend.