Saturday, February 13, 2016
The Danish Girl – a movie review by William Falcetano
The Danish Girl – a movie review by William Falcetano
The Danish Girl is a dramatization of the story of Lili Elbe, who underwent pioneering sex reassignment surgery (SRS) in the 1930s. It arrives at a moment in American cultural history when the phenomenon of transsexualism has been brought to the public’s attention by the coming out of Caitlyn (formerly Bruce) Jenner, the Olympic gold medalist, the TV series Transparent, where “Dad is a woman”, and the legalization of gay marriage by the Supreme Court. America is, if not in the vanguard, at least leaning toward greater toleration, more acceptance, and a more liberal, indeed a more accurate understanding of the human condition. I have made the case in recent film reviews that the cinema is a medium of education, which has, for better or worse, replaced the role of books in contemporary mass culture. As public understanding has evolved so has public empathy and solidarity with others who are different from the main stream. You might say that this is a teachable moment and our director, Tom Hooper (The King’s Speech and Les Miserables), has seized this moment to make a lush art film in which two artists make their lives into works of art. The cinematography is gorgeous – in fact beauty, the love of beauty, and the seduction of beauty are important themes of this film. But the main theme of this film is about taking possession of one’s own life and making it into a work of art. Our hero/heroine has done just that, by undertaking (or attempting to undertake) the transition from male to female. This is an old road, Tiresias of ancient Greece took this path and came back to report on it (women have more fun in bed). And of course there is a long tradition of transvestism in film (Some Like It Hot, Tootsie) and theater (Shakespeare does it a lot – Twelfth Night, Two Gentlemen of Verona). The phenomenon of gender bending seems to hold as much fascination for those who do not do it, as it does for those who do; and the theatrical quality of it seems to entail an audience and a certain level of interest, i.e., voyeurism.
Americans might remember Christine Jorgenson, who was often presented as the first person to undergo SRS in the 1950s; but there were predecessors in Europe and Lili Elbe is the most famous of them. Her story (Man into Woman and The Danish Girl) is one of triumph and self-creation, even if it ends tragically. She was, like others, including Candy Darling, one of Andy Warhol’s “Superstars”, a sacrifice to the learning curve of medical science. (It is a remarkable coincidence that the movie was released on the week that Holly Woodlawn died, another transsexual Warhol Superstar).
We meet Einar Wegener (Eddie Redmayne – who played Stephen Hawking in The Theory of Everything) and Gerda, his wife (the Swedish actress Alicia Vikander, who appeared in The Fifth Estate), at a fashionable soirée for artists in which the liberated women are smoking and everyone is playing the game Let’s Make the Married Couples Blush. But Einar and Gerda manage to shock the free-spirited singles by the story of their first encounter, which was full of role reversals: “it felt as though I were kissing myself”, Gerda says wistfully, foreshadowing the whole movie. When the subject of a ball for artists comes up, Einar complains that he feels he has to “perform himself” whenever he attends such events. Indeed, the Shakespearean suggestion that our lives are a kind of performance and the world a stage is at the core of the film. Transvestism is nothing if not a performance art; and its great practitioners, the drag queens of film and theater, are denizens of the stage, often mocking established sex roles, turning upside down traditional understandings of beauty, men, and women.
Einar is lucky to have such a loyal and understanding wife; Gerda undergoes this journey with her often troubled husband. She too is an artist, her specialty is fashion portraiture, and she asks Einar to model for her when the sitter cancels. He somewhat reluctantly dons stockings and shoes as a dress is placed over him so Gerda could finish the painting. This encounter with womens’ clothes rings a bell in Einar’s head that just keeps on ringing. He and Gerda enjoy the amusing pastime until, finding themselves in Paris, they live openly as a lesbian couple, and seek “treatment” for Einar/Lili’s “condition” (widely considered an illness at the time). Quackery abounds and in one scene Einar makes an escape out a window as a phalanx of doctors and orderlies marches down the hallway to lock up the crazy man. Yet such obstacles did not stop Lili on her quest to transition from male to female. Indeed, it was looking at it in this exclusively binary way that proved to be her undoing, as Lili insisted on receiving a uterus and ovaries – that proved a bridge too far and led directly to her death. Lili was a martyr to medical science, but also a pioneer of the transsexual phenomenon and the modern treatment of it.
The film is a lush and loving embrace of Old Europe of la Belle Époch. There are wonderful scenes on the docks in Copenhagen, where Einar and Gerda share an artists’ garret with wide plank floors and natural light. The camera lovingly embraces Paris and Desden; and the gorgeous art nouveau interiors will make you run out to buy a ticket to Paris, Vienna, or Prague. A movie about transvestism must pay attention to couture and this will delight and charm viewers who pine for a time before sneakers and jeans ruled the world. Yet, it was the allure of beauty that brought Lili to her doom as she gazes lovingly at herself in mirrors, Narcissus-like. And, like that pretty boy of ancient Greece, Lili died in thrall to this seductive and enchanting reflection, unable to live as a male and unable to become a female.