The Danish Girl (2015): a dissapointing and conservative portrayal of transsexuality

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.

The Basics:
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
Year: 2015
Rating: 5

I’m having my own Oscars: 2015

I haven’t seen nearly enough films released in 2015 (just around 130, not including the animated and short ones) to make a list like this, but since we’re already in the middle of January, I decided to give it a go anyway.

I hope you’ll find something to your liking here – and please, do tell what were your favourite films of 2015!

Best Films

  1. Son of Saul (dir. László Nemes)
  2. The Tribe (dir. Miroslav Slaboshpitsky)
  3. The Assassin (dir. Hou Hsia-Hsien)
  4. Taxi (dir. Jafar Panahi)
  5. The Duke of Burgundy (dir. Peter Strickland)
  6. 45 Years (dir. Andrew Haigh)
  7. Amour fou (dir. Jessica Hausner)
  8. Phoenix (dir. Christian Petzold)
  9. Slow West (dir. John Maclean)
  10. A Girl Walks Home Alone at Night (dir. Ana Lily Amirpour)
  11. The Lobster (dir. Yorgos Lanthimos)
  12. White God (dir. Kornél Mundruczó)
  13. Mad Max: Fury Road (dir. George Miller)
  14. The Diary of a Teenage Girl (dir. Marielle Heller)
  15. Room (dir. Lenny Abrahamson)
  16. Victoria (dir. Sebastian Schipper)
  17. Mistress America (dir. Noah Baumbach)
  18. Ex Machina (dir. Alex Garland)
  19. It Follows (dir. David Robert Mitchell)
  20. Faults (dir. Riley Stearns)
  21. Timbuktu (dir. Abderrahmane Sissako)
  22. Kumiko, the Treasure Hunter (dir. David Zellner)
  23. A Pigeon Sat on a Branch Reflecting on Existence (dir. Roy Andersson)
  24. Appropriate Behavior (dir. Desiree Akhavan)
  25. Respire (dir. Mélanie Laurent)
  26. Tu dors Nicole (dir. Stéphane Lafleur)
  27. The Wonders (dir. Alice Rohrwacher)
  28. Tangerine (dir. Sean Baker)
  29. Clouds of Sils Maria (dir. Oliver Assayas)
  30. Sicario (dir. Denis Villeneuve)

Best Woman-Directed Films

(In 2015, more than half of the films I saw were written and/or directed by women. Here’s the whole list of women-directed films that I’ve been working on this past year).

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  1. Amour fou (dir. Jessica Hausner)
  2. A Girl Walks Home Alone at Night (dir. Ana Lily Amirpour)
  3. The Diary of a Teenage Girl (dir. Marielle Heller)
  4. Appropriate Behavior (dir. Desiree Akhavan)
  5. Respire (dir. dir. Mélanie Laurent)
  6. The Wonders (dir. Alice Rohrwacher)
  7. Beyond the Lights (dir. Gina Prince-Bythewood)
  8. Girlhood (dir. Céline Sciamma)
  9. Mustang (dir. Deniz Gamze Ergüven)
  10. Goodnight Mommy (dir. Severin Fiala & Veronika Franz)

Most underrated films

(They’re far from being flawless, but they deserve more love and recognition)

  1. Unexpected (dir. Kris Swanberg)
  2. Dear White People (dir. Justin Simien)
  3. Christmas, Again (dir. Charles Poekel)
  4. Dope (dir. Rick Famuyiwa)
  5. Heaven Knows What (dir. Ben and Joshua Safdie)
  6. Nasty Baby (dir. Sebastián Silva)
  7. The Final Girls (dir. Todd Strauss-Schulson)
  8. My Skinny Sister (dir. Sanna Lenken)
  9. 6 Years (dir. Hannah Fidell)
  10. The End of the Tour (dir. James Ponsoldt)

Best cinematography

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  • Ping Bin Lee (The Assassin)
  • Adam Arkapaw (Macbeth)
  • Robbie Ryan (Slow West)
  • Roger Deakins (Sicario)
  • Nic Knowland (The Duke of Bergundy)
  • Hans Fromm (Phoenix)
  • Sturla Brandth Grøvlen (Victoria)

Best Original Screenplay

  • The Lobster (by Yorgos Lanthimos)
  • Ex Machina (by Alex Garland)
  • Faults (by Riley Stearns)
  • Appropriate Behavior (by Desiree Akhavan)
  • Mistress America (by Noah Baumbach and Greta Gerwig)
  • Spotlight (by Tom McCarthy and Josh Singer)

Best Adapted Screenplay

  • The Diary of a Teenage Girl (Marielle Heller)
  • Room (by Emma Donoghue)
  • 45 Years (by Andrew Haigh)
  • Phoenix (by Christian Petzold and Harun Farocki)
  • 52 Tuesdays (by Matthew Cormack)
  • Brooklyn (by Nick Hornby)

Best Lead Performances: Women

  • Charlotte Rampling (45 Years)
  • Brie Larson (Room)
  • Nina Hoss (Phoenix)
  • Saoirse Ronan (Brooklyn)
  • Alicia Vilkander (The Danish Girl)
  • Gugu Mbatha-Raw (Beyond the Lights)
  • Bel Powley (The Diary of a Teenage Girl)

Honourable mention: Desiree Akhavan (Appropriate Behavior), Elisabeth Moss (Queen of Earth), Arielle Holmes (Heaven Knows What), Laia Costa (Victoria), Maika Monroe (It Follows), Tessa Thompson (Dear White People).

Best Lead Performances: Men

  • Tom Courtenay (45 Years)
  • Colin Farrell (The Lobster)
  • Leland Orser (Faults)
  • Michael B. Jordan (Creed)
  • Mark Ruffalo (Infinitely Polar Bear)
  • Michael Fassbender (Macbeth)
  • Bryan Cranston (Trumbo)

Supporting performances: Women

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  • Kristen Stewart (Clouds of Sils Maria)
  • Mya Taylor (Tangerine)
  • Alicia Vikander (Ex Machina)
  • Katherine Waterston (Queen of Earth)
  • Kristen Wiig (The Diary of a Teenage Girl & Nasty Baby)
  • Joan Allen (Room)

Supporting performances: Men

  • Oscar Isaac (Ex Machina)
  • Benicio del Toro (Sicario)
  • Paul Dano (Love & Mercy)
  • Emory Cohen (Brooklyn)
  • Mark Ruffalo (Spotlight)
  • Idris Elba (Beasts of No Nation)

Best Documentaries

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  • The Look of Silence (dir. Joshua Oppenheimer)
  • The Hunting Ground (dir. Kirby Dick)
  • Dom (dir. Metod Pevec)
  • Listen To Me Marlon (dir. Stevan Riley)
  • What Happened, Miss Simone? (dir. Liz Garbus)
  • Amy (dir. Asif Kapadia)

Best animated films

  • Summer 2014 (dir. Wojciech Sobczyk)
  • Song of the Sea (dir. Tomm Moore)
  • Anatomy of a Spider (dir. Vojtech Kiss)
  • Teeth (dir. Daniel Gray)
  • Splintertime (dir. Rosto)
  • World of Tomorrow (dir. Don Hertzfeldt)
  • O Menino e o Mundo (dir. Alê Abreu)
  • The Magic Mountain (dir. Anca Damian)
  • Anomalisa (dir. Duke Johnson and Charlie Kaufman)

Best music scenes

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  • Phoenix – the most powerful/devastating ending scene I have ever seen.
  • A Girl Walks Home Alone at Night – my favourite vampire in hijab and Persian James Dean listening to “Death” by White Lies and falling in love.
  • Victoria – Victoria playing the piano.
  • 45 Years – ending scene with The Platters’s Smoke Gets In Your Eyes.
  • Ex-Machina – the legendary dance scene with Oscar Isaac.
  • Girlhood – girls dancing to Rihanna’s Diamonds in a hotel room.
  • Anomalisa – Jennifer Jason Leigh singing Cindy Lauper’s Girls Just Wanna Have Fun.

Biggest disappointments

  • Crimson Peak (dir. Guillermo del Toro)
  • The Experimenter (dir. Michael Almereyda)
  • Youth (dir. Paolo Sorrentino)
  • The Stanford Prison Experiment (dir. Kyle Patrick Alvarez)
  • Suffragette (dir. Sarah Gavron)
  • The Danish Girl (dir. Tom Hooper)
  • Digging for Fire (dir. Joe Swanberg)
  • Paper Towns (dir. Jake Schreier)

Worst films of the year

  • The Longest Ride (dir. George Tillman Jr.)
  • Hot Pursuit (dir. Anne Fletcher)
  • Fifty Shades of Grey (dir. Sam Taylor-Johnson)
  • The Loft (dir. Erik Van Looy)
  • Pitch Perfect 2 (dir. Elizabeth Banks)
  • Trainwreck (dir. Judd Apatow)

The Diary of a Teenage Girl (2015): awakening of female sexuality

“I had sex today… Holy shit.” That’s the first sentence we hear from Minnie, our 15-year old protagonist, who is coming-of-age in a 1976 San Francisco.  And just with that one simple sentence this film manages to completely shift the narrative we usually see in films about teenagers, placing girl’s sexual awakening, her thoughts and desires, at the centre of the story.

When we first see Minnie, she’s confidently walking through the park and she doesn’t have to say anything more than that one sentence. As the camera zooms close to her face, we know exactly what she’s thinking: “I became a woman today. I officially became an adult.” With a smile on her face and with her big, wandering eyes looking at the world as if she sees her surroundings for the very first time, we follow her home, into her room, where she sits down on her bed and starts recording her diary on a cassette player. It is she, and she alone, who is the narrator of this ground-breaking story about awakening sexuality of a teenage girl. Bel Powley, whose portrayal of Minnie is absolutely fantastic, carries the whole film with natural ease and confidence and ultimately gives one of the best (and certainly one of the most important) performances of this past year. It took us long enough, but the film that represents us as we really are, and not as we should or could be, is finally here. It probably goes without saying that it sparked its fair share of controversy – but considering it’s one of the first American films directed by a woman that unapologetically questions the carefully maintained status quo, this really isn’t all that surprising.

If we start to view women with agency – and with needs and desires that are as important as boys’ – it takes heterosexual men out of a position of power. Anytime we talk about women having agency or being the protagonist of a story, that’s threatening the status quo. (Marielle Heller, the director)

True, this film moves in a very greyish moral area, considering it’s about Minnie who starts an affair with her mother’s boyfriend Monroe (Alexander Skarsgård’s best role to date) who is 20 years her senior. But there’s a special kind of beauty in this (however problematic) story, because it’s unapologetically honest, real and not at all concerned with how uncomfortable it makes the viewer feel. The film is based on autobiographical novel by Phoebe Glockner and is told entirely from Minnie’s point of view. It therefore doesn’t judge, it doesn’t moralize and it also doesn’t make Monroe a predator or Minnie his under-age victim. The film is set in a groovy, anything-goes 1976 San Francisco, in a household full of smoke, booze and occasional use of cocaine, and considering this social-historical context, it actually makes perfect sense that Monroe is not portrayed as someone who committed statutory rape (even though this obviously was the case). It’s also important to understand that however problematic his character may be, we only see him through Minnie’s big, dreamy eyes, still full of childish wonder about the world surrounding her; the world of sex, lust and love that she is just slowly beginning to understand. She’s smart, funny, honest, vulnerable, curious and flawed; the most real, three-dimensional teenage-girl character that ever graced our movie screens. But she’s also only 15 years old, and this makes her a ticking hormonal bomb, full of typical adolescent insecurities and feelings she doesn’t yet quite understand.

Of course she doesn’t know what she’s getting into when she decides to seduce Monroe. Just as she doesn’t completely comprehend how wrong it is what they’re doing – he, on the other hand, knows they crossed a line and soon starts avoiding her. However, some people can’t seem to get over their problematic age-difference and tend to moralize about how Monroe should be persecuted for having sex with a minor (but then it wouldn’t be Minnie’s story anymore, would it?) – and because of that, they tend to overlook the most revolutionary part of this ground-breaking indie. Things are far from being black and white and not only is she far too smart and complex to be an innocent victim of a sexual predator, she also actually likes sex. She likes it so much that she manages to scare off the boy with whom she hooks up after Monroe starts to keep his distance. Her passion and intensity, her knowing exactly what she wants and how she wants it, turns out to be too much for a teenage boy who was probably raised in a belief that girls don’t even like sex, let alone like it to the same extend as boys.

The narrative I was given as a teenage girl was that boys are going to be the ones who think about sex. Boys are going to be the ones who want to have sex. I think it’s damaging to both sexes that we don’t talk about sexuality as something we are both experiencing equally. (Marielle Heller, the director)

Kristen Wiig does an outstanding job playing Minnie’s boozy and inattentive mother Charlotte, a librarian by day and a tireless party animal by night, who recently divorced Minnie’s conservative step-father (Christopher Meloni) and started living her life as a “liberated woman” of the 70’s. Her narcissistic and hedonistic behaviour seems to be something straight out of Christopher Lasch’s 1979 best-selling book The Culture of Narcissism and while her remarks sometimes seem to be inspired by the ideas of second wave feminism, she doesn’t actually seem able to function without a man in her life. She also can’t seem to break her pattern of dating inappropriate men who bring nothing but chaos into her family life. Even though she doesn’t get much screen time, she comes across as a real, complex and confused human being, full of her own insecurities and inner contradictions – as someone who refuses to be someone’s housewife, but who’s also failing in her role of a mother. As Minnie smartly describes her at the end of the movie: “I always thought I wanted to be exactly like my mom. But she thinks she needs a man to be happy. I don’t. So maybe nobody loves me, maybe nobody will ever love me. But maybe it’s not about being loved by somebody else.” And it’s at that moment that we realize she’s all grown up. She has become a wise, mature and emotionally (although not yet economically) independent woman and a proud feminist who won’t ever allow herself of being defined by men in her life and who will always know that what matters most in life is loving yourself.

Another thing that deserves to be brought up is how smartly the writer/director Marielle Heller avoids portraying Minnie as a sexual object. Even though there is a fair share of nudity in this film, she is never a subject of a (male) gaze – not when it comes to Monroe, and not when it comes to the audience. The only time we see her fully nude is when she stands in front of a mirror, watching and judging herself, trying to figure out if she likes what she sees – she is thus a subject of her own gaze, and all the judging about her being pretty and/or fat is left entirely to her. She is owning every scene that she finds herself in, whether it’s about her lovable, but flawed personality, her hormonal outbursts, her body image or about her sexual experimentation, and she leaves us absolutely no choice but to join her on a crazy ride of adolescent troubles and confusion.

The Basics:
Directed by: Marielle Heller
Written by: Marielle Heller (based on a novel by Phoebe Gloeckner)
Starring: Bel Powley, Alexander Skarsgård, Kristen Wiig, Christopher Meloni
Running Time: 102 minutes
Year: 2015
Rating: 9