I did not expect much of this film when I entered the cinema. I thought I knew exactly what kind of misinterpretation of transgendered pioneer Lili Elbe I am about to witness and I was right. However, the film still managed to disappoint, no matter how very little I expected from it in the first place. Do not get me wrong, there is a lot to like here – the cinematography by Danny Cohen is beautiful and Alexandre Desplat’s score is magical, as always. Alicia Vikander also manages to give an amazing performance, but this sadly was not enough to make this film a worthwhile cinematic experience. The biggest weakness was mainly its “all-to-safe” and conservative screenplay, not to mention its false portrayal of what could (and should) have been a story about the brave life of Lili – the first publicly known person who underwent a sex reassignment surgery in 1929. But instead of introducing us to the inspirational life story of Danish painters and spouses, Einar (later Lili) and Gerda Wegener, this film chooses to tell its own version of the story that is only loosely inspired by their real life (even though it gives the impression that it is based on true events). The amount of inaccuracies in the screenplay was unbelievable and downright offensive, and since films are supposed to be much more than just pretty pictures with good acting, The Danish Girl ended up being just another example of a film where style prevails over any kind of substance.
Both Einar and his wife Gerda were fascinating, open-minded and somewhat controversial people who lived in 1920’s bohemian Paris where they both experimented with their sexuality. Yes, both. Gerda was far from a woman who lived in a shadow of her husband’s talent and who would not get her big break until she started to paint her husband in women’s clothings. Apart from her paintings of Lili, she was most famous for her lesbian erotica art – which is why many wonder if she was, in fact, a lesbian herself. If not, she was most certainly a bisexual woman, since she supposedly had many affairs with other women while still being married to Einar. She was therefore far from being a conventional wife who struggled to understand her husband’s transition into a woman. But none of this gets mentioned in the film; probably because of the fact that bisexuality is still considered a taboo in Hollywood studio films.
This is why The Danish Girl ends up being a very conventional love story where Gerda, somewhat supportive, but unable to fully understand her husband’s struggle, gets turned into a martyr who sacrifices her marriage for the sake of her husband’s happiness. While watching the film, you will find yourself more sympathetic towards Gerda than Lili who is slowly coming to terms with her gender and her newly established identity. To make a film about a transgendered person where your main sympathy goes to everyone else but that transsexual person perfectly demonstrates where the true agenda of this film lies, because it is certainly not in representing LGBT community. When the credits finally rolled, I actually began to wonder whether the title The Danish Girl really meant Lili, because it sure seemed more like Gerda’s story at more than one occasion. Not to mention the fact that Lili often came across as an egoistical and downright selfish person who does not care about anyone but herself. There was one particularly problematic scene where Gerda asked Lili if she could speak with her husband, which was a perfect moment to explain that Lili is, in fact, Einar (and vice versa); that they are the same person, that they always were the same person. Instead, she only responds with: “No. Can I help, please?”, as if she is deliberately depriving her wife of speaking to her husband one more time. It is awfully manipulative to portray her like that: this film was supposed to be about her inner struggle and not about the struggles of people around her. Especially when those struggles did not actually exist: Einar lived as Lili for more than 10 years before having a surgery, and in all this time, Gerda and her had a lovely, loving marriage. They lived together as two women for the longest time before their marriage became annulled due to legal issues. After Lili had her first surgery (out of four; the last one in 1931 was fatal), she legally changed her name from Einar to Lili Elbe, and this made their marriage invalidate since two women could not be legally married at the time.
Another problem that cannot remain unaddressed was how Einar first acknowledged that she actually identifies as a woman. When one of Gerda’s models cancelled her appointment, Einar came to pose in her place – and it is in that exact moment, when (s)he puts on women stockings and a dress, that she discovers her true gender identity. Which is, of course, misleading – she was born as a woman and has therefore always identified as a woman, even though everyone else around her perceived her as a man. Did the film tried to suggest that if she would not try those clothes on, she would not realize that she was born in the wrong body? From there on she then starts touching her silk dress in a ridiculously erotic way, as if she did not just realized that she feels much more herself when dressed like a woman, but as if the dress actually, somewhat fetishistically, turned her on. From there forward at least the next half of the film continues in this fashion; as if her dressing up in women’s clothes would be more of a roleplay between Gerda and herself, and not about her actually being a woman born inside of a man’s body. That is until she starts to suffer from monthly nosebleeds and stomach cramps – if she is actually experiencing something as close to a menstrual cycle as a “man” can get, then maybe there really is something more to her dressing up as a woman? Because only after that the film slowly begins to explore the possibility that she actually is a woman and always was a woman: but by that time it is already too late, the damage has already been done.
Just as Jenny’s Wedding earlier this year, this film’s representation of homosexuality and transsexuality feels disappointingly conservative and outdated, not to mention the fact that a transgendered role once again has not been played by an actual trans actor. It is not more than two years since Jared Leto’s Oscar-winning role in Dallas Buyers Club opened up a discourse about the lack of trans people working in film – and yet here we are again, watching Eddie Redmayne dressing up and trying to (unsuccessfully) come across as Lili Elbe, when I am sure that there is more than enough talented trans actresses in Hollywood that would be perfect for the role. It is also somewhat infuriating to see that Redmayne’s performance got him another Oscar nomination. While I liked his performance in The Theory of Everything, his choice of playing Lili in the same physical way as Stephen Hawking felt wrong to me. Everything he did – from his hand gestures and smiles, to his excessive blinking with the eyes, seemed choreographed and forced. There was nothing natural about it; in every scene he looked like he is posing for a portrait, but the most annoying thing was probably the way he batted with his eyelashes as if that’s the characteristic that makes you look the most feminine version of yourself.
The Danish Girl does not even come close to representing trans community; nor does it tries to understand it. All that this film actually manages to do is showing us how trans people are perceived by cisgendered, heterosexual majority. And this is, for me, an unforgivable misrepresentation of a minority that deserved something much better.
Directed by: Tom Hooper
Written by: Lucinda Coxon (based on a novel by David Ebershoff)
Starring: Eddie Redmayne, Alicia Vikander, Amber Heard, Ben Whishaw
Running Time: 119 minutes