The Danish Girl (2015)

It’s been a while since I last posted a movie review! But it’s been a long while since I’ve seen a movie early enough in theaters that I thought I could still get away with writing a review. (Right now, I only write reviews for films I’m fortunate enough to see early, but please let me know if you’d like reviews for movies I see during their regular theatrical runs.) (And possibly others?)

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I was excited to see The Danish Girl because the casting had made quite a splash when it was announced. Eddie Redmayne plays Lili Elbe, born Einar Wegener the painter, one of the first people to undergo sex reassignment surgery. Alicia Vikander plays Gerda Wegener, Einar’s wife and a painter by her own right. Einar and Gerda and kind of a beautiful couple, truly and madly in love with each other and trying to have children at the start of the film. While Gerda is struggling to get her portraits shown, her husband’s career is more successful as he shies away from the attention he is beginning to garner in art circles.

At a pivotal point in the film, Gerda asks her husband to put on stockings, shoes, and a dress for a sitting so that she can work on a portrait that her model (a wild child ballet dancer named Oola played by Amber Heard) is late to. At first, Einar puts up little resistance out of his love for his wife, but he hesitates when Gerda asks him to hold up the dress so that she can see how the fabric falls. “Maybe you’ll like it,” she teases.

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Einar sitting for Gerda

This is where Eddie Redmayne’s performance starts to shine through. You can see that Einar is visibly changed from the moment he begins to slip on the silk stockings as he looks down and sees, for all intents and purposes, a woman’s legs. There are a lot of closeups on Einar’s face as he grapples with how he feels in women’s clothing and how he feels seeing himself in it. He touches the soft satin of the dress and – for his wife or for himself? – strikes a more feminine pose as Oola walks in. The moment is broken and Einar immediately laughs in embarrassment that Oola has seen him in stockings and holding the dress to his body. She is immensely amused and dubs this feminine Einar “Lily” while giving him a bouquet of lilies.

From this moment, we see Einar gradually becoming more and more comfortable as Lili, and less and less comfortable as Einar. It’s difficult to watch, not only because it’s a difficult period of a person’s life to be intruding upon as she comes to embrace a different gender identity than the one she has been forced into, but also because of how it’s portrayed.

Even as someone who is maybe a bit more social justice-oriented than the average American, I am quite new to transsexual issues. That being said, I am not sure that the fixation on feminizing Einar was the best way to show the character’s shift in identity. There is an entire scene where Einar goes to a peepshow to watch a naked woman touch her body and he mimics her. I understand why these kinds of scenes happened, and I can’t speak on behalf of the trans community, but it seemed a little gratuitous and oversimplified as far as what it means to be a woman. (Although I understand that, for a visual medium, it’s difficult to convey this mental shift without using these borderline-garish visual means.)

Another thing that is difficult to watch is Einar and Gerda’s marriage disintegrate, because their love is very clearly demonstrated to be so beautiful at the start of the film. Obviously, their relationship as husband and wife changes as Einar transition to Lili. It’s so tricky to portray, and I think maybe the film got ambitious with showing this because I think it missed a few beats. I’m not saying that a situation like this is easy to portray, but in The Danish Girl, it seemed to be misisng something. We see how much Einar and Gerda love each other, and can’t keep their hands off each other, and fell for each other at first sight. And when Einar starts to let go of Einar and embrace Lili, we see that she still loves Gerda, even while Gerda really fights Lili replacing her husband. But by the middle of the film, Lili is having illicit rendezvous with a man (Henrik, played by the adorable Ben Whishaw), and by the end of the film, she is telling Gerda how she wishes to marry a man someday and have children.

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Lili and Gerda having a difficult conversation

I really struggled to believe Lili being this callous toward Einar’s wife. Was there such a strong divide between Lili and Einar that Lili did not love Gerda the way Einar did? It didn’t seem that way in the middle of the film; it seemed that Lili did still care for Gerda deeply. But maybe she didn’t love Gerda? It didn’t make a lot of sense, especially given what Lili would say in public about marriage and how much she valued it, and I think this may have to do with just how gender identity itself doesn’t often make a lot of sense. But it was painful to see how Gerda had to suffer in a very different way from how Lili was suffering. And I’m glad that the movie did not try to minimize Gerda’s suffering and only focus on how Lili alone suffered through her transition.

Also interesting is how Gerda has to deal with this transition herself. Her career as a painter is only able to take off because of her paintings of Lili. (“It takes the right subject matter to make an artist great.” – very roughly paraphrased) So it’s interesting to see her treat Lili as this amazing person who helps her create amazing art, but also for her to deal with the conflict that by having Lili, she does not have her husband. But her love persists throughout the entire film, even though when it’s difficult for Gerda. It’s very tough to watch and to show, and I think that’s really honest.

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I do like how they also showed Lili’s struggle with medical professionals, most of whom diagnosed Einar with perversions or a series of other mental illnesses. It is implied with her first doctor’s visit that Lili may be intersex, as she has stomach cramps every month. (It has not been confirmed if Lili Elbe was intersex in real life.) However, that first doctor subjected Lili to painful radiation therapy that did not cure her ailments. It’s difficult, then, for Lili to trust Dr. Warnekros (played by Sebastian Koch), her last resort to seek medical treatment. Only Dr. Warnekros believes in Lili’s gender identity as valid, and rather than trying to cure “Einar’s perversion”, tries to help Lili exist in the world as a woman.

(Again, though, I don’t love how Lili and Dr. Warnekros use terms like “real woman” at times. For example, Lili expresses a desire to have a baby, “like a real woman”. I’m not saying it was wrong, but it was hard for me to understand what Lili thought of herself as a woman and maybe that was the point; that Lili herself was not yet sure that her identity as a woman was valid.)

The scoring by Alexandre Desplat was also great. Desplat frequently does a wonderful job of creating very emotional film scores and this was no exception. The only thing more powerful than Desplat’s moving scores were the very pronounced awkward silences that filled the gaps. The soft color palette of the film was also pretty key in highlighting, then, the brighter colors of Lili, for example, who was never comfortable being in public as Einar but was so comfortable being in her red lips and beautiful gowns. Really great work by the set designers in tandem with the cinematographers, truly.

I cried a lot watching this movie, and I’m really happy to see Hollywood begin to tell these stories that really need to be told. I’m expecting to see a lot of The Danish Girl in the upcoming movie awards season. (Eddie Redmayne and Alicia Vikander already have several – well-deserved – nominations including ones for the Golden Globes.)

This isn’t a great family movie. There is a scene where you see, erm… a lot of Eddie Redmayne. And if you are uncomfortable with seeing a male actor in women’s clothing and makeup, you will definitely be uncomfortable watching this movie. And if you’re kind of salty about Eddie Redmayne being a more beautiful man and more beautiful woman than you are, prepare to be salty while watching this movie. But it’s a good film to see, even if it makes you uncomfortable. Because these are stories you should know. This is suffering you should be aware of.

And it’s a gorgeous movie.

The Danish Girl has been on limited release since November 27, 2015 in the United States.

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