The Danish Girl, the story of one of the world’s first sex reassignment surgeries, is obviously a timely one, as this past year has been a watershed for awareness of the plight of transgendered people. Within that context, the film is in one way what you might expect, in that it works hard (and tampers significantly with the biographical details of the account) to soften the tragedy of Lili Elbe’s story and paint it as a tale of heroic sacrifice and redemption. What is unexpected about the film is that it is much more interesting as an account of a relationship, not a singular identity, and that it is really the story of the unfolding of a marriage. Again, the film tampers with the historical facts in this case too, and simplifies what is a much more complex and painful reality of a relationship pushed to its breaking point; but even given that, it still emerges as one of the more interesting recent portrayals of a husband and wife, and this is due to the fact that the film eschews formulaic or stereotypical gender shorthand, instead providing a very realistic picture of how two people, who know each other so well, and are bonded very closely, exist outside of and beyond gender, and accommodate each other as spiritual beings first and foremost. That is to say, gender and sexuality are treated as being fluid a priori, and able to shift and reinvent themselves, because of the fact of marriage. While this gives the film its interest generally, it is also not enough to rescue our interest specifically, which wanes in the second half, as Einar Wegener definitively becomes Lili, and the fluidity that previously defined both the relationship and the portrayal becomes fixed and rigid, a mere retelling of (fudged) historical fact. And in this way, the film reveals itself to be unconsciously pessimistic – the fact of history, the context of the age we live in, ultimately defines the hard parameters of our rebellious attempts at reworking our identities.
The film begins with Einar Wegener (Eddie Redmayne) a successful and respected painter of landscapes in 1920s Copenhagen. He is married to Gerda (Alicia Vikander), a less successful figure painter and illustrator, who he met in art school. Too shy to ask her out, Gerda had to get the ball rolling herself, thus setting the tone for the marriage – a back and forth, with neither partner “the man” nor “the woman,” but passing the roles back and forth. (Einer is the breadwinner, and the success, a support to his wife both materially and emotionally, but is also soft spoken, sensitive, and retiring, whereas Gerda is more worldly and forthright, but neither brash nor particularly outspoken). Asked by Gerda to stand-in for an absent female model (Amber Heard as ballerina Ulla), Einar is at first put-off, but then surprised to find he enjoys dressing up as a woman, and playing the role temporarily. Gerda, feeling both turned on by this and somewhat puckish by nature, suggests that Einar attend an artist’s ball with her as “Lili,” Einar’s “cousin,” partly, we get the feeling, for her own erotic pleasure, and partly to draw Einar out of his shell, and get him to attend a social event he normally would pass on. At the ball, Lili is intriguing to almost everyone, the men in particular, and by the end she is being kissed by Henrik (Ben Whishaw), a gay man who has detected Einar’s ruse, but plays along with it. Upset, Einar gets a nosebleed and flees, and Gerda, having caught them in the act, is similarly upset. Einar enters a period of tempered euphoria, as he feels elated at having discovered his real identity, but is also confused by it, and upset at the implications it has for his marriage. Gerda is also upset and sad at the slow loss of her husband, but, perhaps as a way of coping, perhaps somewhat opportunistically, uses him as a model, and becomes a great success with the series of paintings featuring Lili. She is soon offered a show in Paris, and the couple moves there, with their life becoming more quickly inverted – Lili has no interest in painting, despite Gerda’s admonitions that Einar continue with it, and Gerda becomes the well-known, successful breadwinner. She is quickly lost in her own confusion, however, as she misses having a husband, and while supportive and protective of Lili, is perhaps not a match for her, even putting aside the unsurprising problems in the bedroom. She soon turns to an old friend of Einar’s, the art dealer Hans Axgil (Matthias Schoenaerts), first as a confidant and friend to Lili, and then as a replacement husband and lover (although, it must be said, most reluctantly, and only after Lili has made it clear that Einar will not return). Hans is uniquely poised to be of help, as he shared a kiss with Einar when they were children, but is unabashed by it, and while heterosexual, is not put off by Einar’s new identity or the underlying fact of such fluidity. Einar, wanting to embrace Lili but not finding a through road that will allow him to exist in society as he would want (that is, fully as a woman) searches from doctor to doctor for answers, with naught but suffering and patronizing “help” that often is quite hurtful. Finally, with Hans’s intervention, Einar visits Dr. Warnekros (Sebastian Koch), who does not think him insane, and indeed proposes a radical solution – gender reassignment surgery. Einar is elated that he will finally be Lili once and for all, and fully embodied, and so undergoes the process, which will require two surgeries. The first goes off well enough, given the medical limitations of the period, but Lili, in a quest to complete the process and catch her exterior up to her interior, pushes for the second surgery too quickly perhaps, against the wishes of Gerda, who remains by her side throughout. The second surgery is too much for Lili to bear, and she dies, with Gerda and Hans by her side. The movie ends with the new couple back in Denmark, Lili’s scarf borne aloft by the wind, a sign, we suppose, of her spirit taking flight and triumphing over the limitations of her body.
As you can likely tell from the description, the movie is standard liberal-humanist “triumph of the soul over all adversity” sentimentalism. The historical facts of Einar’s transition to Lili were much messier. Lili died alone, having divorced Gerda before the surgery, and the surgeries were not as similar to the reassignment surgeries of today as the film portrays; Lili died of a womb transplant which didn’t take (as it couldn’t, since the drugs to fight rejection of the organs weren’t introduced until half a century later). Gerda also did not end her life married happily to an art dealer, as the movie suggests, but instead died penniless, bankrupted by an Italian officer. While this whitewashing is a problem, it is a lesser one – although it undercuts the motives of the film by devaluing Lili’s sacrifice and true heroism at taking on a far more radical surgery, alone, and significantly leavens the sadness and tragedy of her hopes of becoming a “real woman” (that is, one able to bear a child). The larger issue for the film is that, once Einar “solves” his problem and fixes his identity as definitively female, much of our interest dissipates, and it becomes a fairly dry, predictable succession of “facts.” The first third of the film is alive because both characters are not one thing or another – the relationship between Einar and Gerda is continually shifting and developing, and the allegiance they feel to one another, and the angst, and excitement, caused by the introduction of this new element, always latent, is fascinating and powerful. As a portrait of a marriage, it is refreshing in its realism; it only becomes an “unconventional” relationship in the second half, when it also becomes an impossible one. Eddie Redmayne does a decent enough job with his role, but he is better as Einar – as Lili, he relies a bit much on mannerisms (in an attempt, perhaps, to capture Lili’s nascence and her biographically correct stereotypical “womanliness”), and as he takes center stage more and more, we like him less and less. This is not because we can’t identify with his transformation (that is for each audience member to experience for themselves), but because, as viewers, we have identified, and feel allegiance to, the couple, and the marriage. His abandonment of that makes it difficult for us to follow him, or to follow Gerda either, although to a lesser extent. The fact is that Alicia Vikander as Gerda has our sympathy throughout simply because she reveals herself to be a remarkable actress. I had only seen her in Ex Machina, where she was quite good, but essentially playing a pseudo-human, so I didn’t know what to expect. Her Gerda, especially early in the film, where she is frightened of Einar’s transformation, yet also turned on by it, supportive of it, curious about it, and wounded by it, is incredible. The film feels more about her experience than it does Einar/Lili’s. For most of us, she is the point of identification, as we also feel, in turn, the same about Redmayne’s Einar. We are excited, aroused, and worried for him as his new identity begins to flower, but as with most bio-pics, we already know how this story ends, and so once he moves beyond Gerda, the film takes on a closed, deterministic air. If only Tom Hooper and screenwriter Lucinda Coxon had allowed the film’s conclusion to follow the historical reality more faithfully, we would have a different set of feelings to transition to – sadness, melancholy, perhaps horror, all mixed with hope. The full weight of the pressure of the this new identity would have been brought to bear on us. Instead, by trying to lighten the impact, we feel the film, like Lili’s scarf, becomes insubstantial – the theme of the film, after all, is the inability of someone to feel that they are properly embodied, so downplaying the bodily suffering is a strange choice. Perversely, by trying to keep a “positive” tone for the sake of people working through such issues, then and now, the film winds up selling them out, getting the nature of their struggle exactly wrong.