“The Danish Girl:” A transgender story that misses the story

This flawed Tom Hooper film does just enough to muck up the history of its subject while missing the real, (perhaps) intended focus.

"The Danish Girl," promo image. (Artémis Productions.)

WASHINGTON, January 24, 2016 – In film, when people derisively refer to “Oscar bait,” a movie like “The Danish Girl” is just the kind of flick they’d be offering as an example. Set in the mid-1920s, the movie is based on the eponymous novel by David Ebershoff, it’s a pseudo-historical biopic based on the lives of Danish painters Lili Elbe and Gerta Wegener, the former being one of the first individuals to undergo sex change surgery, something that’s currently a hot political and media topic.

The subject matter, regardless of the professionalism involved, is presented in a relatively bombastic way. Everything in the film possesses a melodramatic flair, leading us to imagine that everything concerning the characters’ lives is on the line all the time. In the process, this flawed film does just enough to muck up the history of its subject. At the same time, it misses the connection to the present day atmosphere with regard to the transgendered community.

As in Ebershoff’s book, “The Danish Girl” is nominally about a transgendered woman named Lili Elbe (played by Eddie Redmayne). Yet while this film purports to be all about Lili, the action, the emotion and the drama is viewed instead through the consciousness of Lili’s one time wife, partner and fellow artist Gerta Wegener (Alicia Vikander).

On both a physical and emotional level, most of the audience won’t instantly identify with (female) Lili’s transition path from (male) Einar. Using Gerta as the audience’s eyes and ears can succeed as a way of getting the audience to more closely identify with Lili as she goes through her trials and tribulations. The only problem with this, however—and it’s a trap that many creators can fall into – is that the film ends up being only concerned with how Lili’s ordeals affect Gerta.

As the film opens, Gerta and Lili are attending an exhibit celebrating Lili/Einar’s work as a landscape painter. As Lili is praised by patrons, she accepts the praise albeit in a laughing and nervous manner. Gerta stands off to the side, not quite seething but clearly perturbed at the admiration her partner is garnering, attention she believes she might deserves as a portrait painter. The film plays off this dynamic as not a very big deal, but this theme runs through the entire film and becomes rather disturbing, as the film increasingly identifies with Gerta while leaving Lili off to the side.

The overriding problem: everything we learn about Lili is purely superficial. The film never digs deeply into just who Lili is, skipping most of the details in the process.

This is curious in a way, as the film’s director, Tom Hooper, achieved well-earned praise for his direction of “The King’s Speech.” His key contribution in that film was the way he framed most of its scenes to let Colin Firth and Geoffery Rush ping off one other, the better to define the character of both—particularly the King. But the same technique proves wholly unsuited for a character piece like the Danish Girl. It’s one of the reasons why the film’s focus so easily shifts to Gerta.

This confusion of focus becomes most obvious in the film’s the big revelatory scene, in which Gerta asks Einar to sit in as a model for one of the former’s portraits—Einar’s first immersive exposure to women’s clothing. The real Lili Elbe has said it was this moment that was of crucial importance, leading her to the realization that she was really a woman.

The problem is that this scene as staged doesn’t extend much further than Einar’s expressing an appreciation for the clothing. Here and elsewhere, this film can’t seem to articulate the difference between Lili being a woman or performing as a woman.

It’s a big issue. The film draws such a definitive line between the characters of Lili and Einar that it creates two entirely different individuals even though we are supposedly experiencing only one, single individual in search of a true gender identity.

The film, however, reinforces the ideal of duality as just about everyone in it refers to Lili as two separate people. Even Lili accepts this for the most part. This is rather disturbing, not only because there end up being little apparent depth to Lili’s emotions. It also permits certain aspects of transphobia to seep into the film when it’s literally telling the audience something different.

Through the frame that is Gerta, “The Danish Girl” is telling the audience it cares about Lili. Yet there’s little in the way of action to give Lili agency on her own. That’s why focusing so intently on Gerta is so troubling. It doesn’t allow Lili to tell the story from her perspective, and that’s the story the audience likely came to see and hear.

Once Lili starts to come out of her shell as a woman, the movie inexorably devolves into a fairly standard medical drama. How Lili’s transition is treated through the eyes of everyone who isn’t her leads us to feel that this progression is some kind of disease.

In the end, rather than the character study we might have expected, the film ultimately seems more concerned with the physical aspects of Lili’s transition, not the emotional ones, particularly when Lili’s pioneering surgeries take a fatal turn. We’re left with the hollow feeling that the most important part about Lili is her gender and very little else.

The film concludes with after story text, informing the audience that Lili still inspires many in the transgender community. Yet nothing in this film is particularly inspiring or uplifting, unless it was meant to assure its viewers that Gerta stayed strong even as the final image the audience sees in the film is that of Lili passing away.

Those finals shots of Gerta watching Lili’s scarf fly in the wind, combined with text that tells us (without showing us) how “inspiring” the historical Lili is, drives home the point of who this film is really for. Like so many films that nominally deal with marginalized people, the narrative doesn’t exist to communicate to the those marginalized communities they claim to support. Instead, they turn out to be feel-good parables designed for audiences on the outside looking in who want to signal their virtues and feel good about their own positions in life.

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