*There are some spoilers below, though nothing you won’t already know if you’re familiar with the real-life story of Lili Elbe*
Ok, this film is not strictly Victorian (unless by the tenuous fact of Lili Elbe being born Einar Wegener in 1882) but it is too blatantly concerned with gender to not talk about it here.
In many ways this film feels like a triumphant culmination to a year that has witnessed unprecedented public awareness of trans issues, but which has also opened up – I’m looking at you Germaine Greer – larger and more problematic debates about gender identities. The Danish Girl engages beautifully and sincerely with these issues whilst also falling foul of some of the cliches which still linger in gender discourse, as well as in this kind of biopic film-making.
Lots to Love
Don’t get me wrong, there’s an awful lot to like in this movie, and top of the list are the visuals. The textures and colours of the costumes are fetishised as part of the aesthetic, but they also serve the plot. The interior scenes in the Denmark all have that crisp white light and eggshell blue walls of the Golden Age of Danish painting, and Paris looks like the inside of Gustav Klimt’s head. The performances – Eddie Redmayne, obviously – but also Alicia Vikander, Matthias Schoenaerts, and Sebastian Koch, who plays Lili’s brilliant doctor, are all top-notch. Vikander, much like Felicity Jones in The Theory of Everything has in some ways the tougher role here. As Einar’s wife and a painter in her own right, she does a great job at making you believe the romance and love between the central characters, the tension in their professional relationship, but also manages to avoid the pitfall of making Gerda either an obstacle to Lili’s development, or merely a selfless crutch to Einar’s more ‘heroic’ transformation. Indeed, as the perspective shifts towards Gerda in the second half, there are moments when Lili becomes frustratingly self-absorbed in her failure to acknowledge Gerda’s grief at the loss of her husband. The way their relationship is depicted is beautifully complex stuff.
Furthermore, Gerda’s heterosexuality is given as much attention as Lili’s. Indeed, it is Gerda who is the only character ever referred to on screen as a ‘Danish Girl’, and it is an interesting stance for the movie to take, given that the real-life Gerda was, as far as we know, a lesbian. Lili, in turn, is distinguished from the homosexuality of Henrik, played by Ben Wishaw.
In the first half of the film (and in the trailer, hence I feel no guilt as mentioning it here), Henrik is set up as a potential love interest for Lili, and a threat to Einar and Gerda’s marriage. In the second half, however, Gerda catches the pair on a stroll together, only for Lili to dismiss her fears as paranoid and narrow-minded. “Henrik is homosexual” Lili says, and my inner gender theorist breathed a sigh of relief that the film had navigated the dangerous waters of conflating trans, gay and bi-sexual characters together as somehow all alike and non-normative.
There’s no denying the movie has only the best intentions on this score. Lili has ‘been here all along’ is the message it wants us to take home, and the fact that we are not subjected to a chipper makeover montage a la The Devil Wears Prada or, even worse, a Frankenstein-style operation montage, reinforces the idea that Lili is ‘discovered’ rather than ‘created’. The notion of creation – of Lili’s operation, but also the question of whether she might one day be able to bear children of her own – is one which the movie toys with in the final act but then sadly shies away from. “I’m sick on the inside,” Lili confides to a fellow patient before going in for her op. “Will you be able to have children after?” the woman asks. “You know, I just don’t know”, she replies, and how I wish the movie had had the courage to really follow through on this question, because it is one of several sections of the Lily Elbe story where the truth is more compelling than the fiction. Lili Elbe died in 1930 from complications of a fourth operation to implant a uterus, something that, as far as I can recall, the movie completely fails to mention. I was amazed when I read this fact, which feels gloriously possible in an age of modern medicine and yet also unsettlingly hubristic, as well as being the most provocative aspect of Lili’s story, given very current debates about ‘what makes a woman?’, where are the lines between biological sex and cultural gender, and where is gender located? I know it’s asking rather a lot, but I do wish The Danish Girl had glanced forward to these debates a little more.
Really, movie, REALLY?!
As much as I’d love to heap praise on a film which is so earnest in its intentions, I must confess I had five or six literal facepalm moments during the course of the two-hour runtime. There are moments where the dialogue and imagery are, at best, blunt as a bag of hammers and, at worst, simperingly melodramatic. For instance, after Lili’s first (admittedly traumatic) outing in her female clothing, we are confronted with a lingering shot of blood on her dress. Really, movie, REALLY?! You couldn’t have found a clunkier image of metaphorical deflowering if you’d tried. It is one of several scenes which really needed to be cut a good fifteen to twenty seconds sooner ie. before the point at which they tip over from thoughtful and moving into cringey and clunky. I can’t even talk about the final shot. I just…no.
The film also encounters a fascinating problem which I think is more indicative of bigger and more deeply ingrained problems with society’s understanding of gender: for a film that is trying to subvert rigid gender binaries it often relies for its expression on that very same language (both visual and verbal) of gender stereotypes. Lili has been there all along; Einar is truly a woman ‘on the inside’, and yet the main way the movie expresses that in the first half is by having Einar wander about the house picking up and folding clothes, whilst his wife struts around, puffing on a cigarette and mounting him in the bedroom. “But Lili, you’re so traditional ” another character marvels. They might as well have substituted ‘chaste’, ‘demure’, ‘submissive’, ‘reserved’. *Facepalm* There were moments where I couldn’t tell whether this film was being super-clever or woefully naive. Lili becomes more feminine than the women around her, but only according to a stereotyped notion of femininity which, in the same historical moment, women across Europe were fighting to dismantle and which the movie itself seems to want to complicate.
In short, then, The Danish Girl has its problems but it is a beautiful, well-acted and well-meaning film that is a fine testament to how far we have come in acknowledging trans identities and breaking down restrictive gender archetypes more broadly, but also how much further we still have to go.
What did you think of The Danish Girl? Comment or tweet me to let me know.