Few movies have touched me like The Danish Girl. With the ability to weave a Hammershoi kind of look into this Denmark-based story, the movie sheds a light on love, freedom and identity. The Danish Girl tells the story of the Danish painters couple Einar (Eddie Redmayne) and Gerda (Alicia Vikander) Wegener in the 1920’s. While Einar is praised for his landscapes, Gerda has trouble breaking through with her portraits. That is, until she has Einar pose for one of her paintings, which involves him wearing a dress. With her husband as her muse, Gerda finds her true artistic eye and takes over the art world with her portraits of Einar’s alter ego Lili. This wakes up a different side of Einar and he realises that he has never been a man, but a woman trapped in a man’s body and now has to figure out how both their lives will continue. The Danish Girl is based on the true story of one of the first transgender persons to undergo gender reassignment surgery.
Although two years too late, I felt it necessary to write a review on this gem. Firstly, it made me wonder how La La Land won six Oscars while The Danish Girl won one: the Oscar for Best Supporting Role for Alicia Vikander. While completely deserved, Eddie Redmayne portrayed a fragility that has, in my opinion, rarely been matched. His acting might never equal the experience of an actual transgender person, but director Tom Hooper himself has argued that he could never imagine any other actor playing Lili, and “that there was something in him that was drawn to the feminine.” Redmayne’s sense of gender fluidity makes for the perfect performance and shows the art of acting at its best. Acting where one can really surpass one’s own life and see through the eyes of the portrayed character, where one can move past one’s own sexuality, even gender and become someone new. Even the glimmer in Redmayne’s eyes seems to change while he acts out both the male and the female.
The movie shows the life of the artist’s community, which shows an acceptance that is often denied in other social circles and might have even moved backwards as history progresses. The gala scene shows a non-binary paradigm within the community where, even in early 20th century, the concept of the transgender is ‘exquisite’ instead of ‘wrong’.
If forced to choose what I like most about the movie, then it would be its portrayal of gender performance. In preparation for the gala, Gerda is shown to teach Einar how to perform femininity and so shows the theatricality of gender, which is especially emphasised in hand movements. Throughout the movie Einar/Lili is particularly intrigued by the elegance of his hands and this is also the subject of assuredly the most touching scene in the whole movie: the brothel scene. Hooper’s use of reflection in the glass blurs, the distinction between Einar/Lili and the prostitute and the connection that arises between the two is beyond touching. The fragility that is shown in the way that Einar studies her movements, and her awareness of his platonic infatuation creates a dance between his mimicking of her movements and her willingness to please him in such a delicate way that only ceases when she goes where he cannot and the spell is broken. This gender performance is once more validated through Gerda’s portraits of Lili. As Lili points out in her recovery process, Gerda’s paintings have made her who she is, and now they will help her recover. Gerda drew Einar female, and so she will draw her strong. Gerda’s paintings helped create Lili and made Einar’s performance of her apparent.
Although The Danish Girl is a tragic story in form, Hooper chooses to depict it more dramatically than necessary. The movie overplays on sentimentality regarding the music, for instance. Hooper chooses to emphasise a tragic theme throughout the movie through excessively depressing background music, while the story itself is much more a story of love and acceptance than it is about Lili’s tragic death by which Hooper manipulates the audience to tears in a scene which, quite frankly, does not need to be so depressing at all. If anything, Lili does get her happy ending in the sense that she ends up being (and yes, eventually dying) as exactly the person she wanted to be. Thus, the music that accompanies the movie is no good fit for the plot and should have accentuated other parts besides tragedy as well and should have imitated the delicacy of the story.
The Danish Girl shows love in many forms which gives a sense of realism and relatability to the film: Henrik’s interest in Lili (or actually Einar as Lili), Hans’s attraction to Gerda, and Hans’s love for Einar. However, not all relationships conveyed the same level of realism to me. For example, what makes the story slightly unrealistic is the way Gerda shows an unconditional love for Einar, even when she has to lose her husband when he turns into Lili, between whom some attraction is hinted. However, from Einar’s side, nearly all attraction seems to fade away once Lili comes alive. This takes away from the realism of the movie, for surely love and attraction cannot be turned on and off so easily by only changing one’s gender. Is Einar not simply Lili, trapped in the wrong body? The movie portrays a certain gender performance in the separation that is shown in Einar and Lili. Before Lili is introduced in the movie, Einar and Gerda are shown to have a loving sexual relationship, however this all changes when Einar permanently becomes Lili and seems to completely turn off her attraction for Gerda which is symbolised by a curtain separating the two in bed. All of a sudden Lili wants to marry someone else, while Gerda still feels a marital bond. Lili herself says that Einar has to die for him to become herself, signifying that there was a part of her that was not Lili, which is somewhat strange seeing that that shows that she is counteractively not completely herself if she has to kill off a part of her.
God made Lili a woman, and that is how she dies. In this aspect the movie still has a happy ending where Lili smiles and can finally say that she is completely herself. Although the ending was a real tear jerker, it gives a sense of acceptance and fulfilment knowing that Lili was happy.