Review: The Danish Girl

Spoilers.

Last week, Ledcat and I went to AMC Loews at the Waterfront to see ‘The Danish Girl.’ This is one of my least favorite movie theaters because of its slightly shabby condition, a fact not helped with the introduction of self-serve soda fountains. Still, AMC brings in the lesser known films on a regular basis so we continue to return. After trying to fill my overpriced cup of Sprite amidst a jostling group of kids, I was slightly annoyed. More than slightly, when I took my seat.

I had read a little bit about Lili Elbe, the character at the heart of the novel upon which the movie is based. Lili was a real person, an artist and a resident of Denmark. But this is not a biographical sketch, sacrificing some key factual information to drive the narrative.

Lili is one of the first people to undergo gender reassignment surgery (in the 1920’s Europe), but the movie revolves around her emotional and physical transition as well as her love affair with her wife, Gerda Wegener, also a painter.

The casting of British cis gender actor Eddie Redmayne was controversial, but Redmayne’s performance is not terrible. He brings a tenderness and awe to the character’s discovery of Lili. I was most struck by Redmayne’s choice to smile so often. Lili smiled when she was happy, when she felt she was passing, when she received approval or attention. I couldn’t help but wonder if that was Redmayne’s concept of how women behave – smiling for the male gaze.

Lili, smiling.
Lili, smiling.

The movie ignores most of Gerda’s story – she was more than a supportive wife and lover. She was a queer woman in her own right with a noted career painting erotica scenes. She also ended her marriage to Lili and remarried. The dramatic ending was entirely fantasy and that’s unfortunate because the real story of Lili (and Gerda) is interesting and worthy of a film.

The sets, scenery and costumes were gorgeous and very British. I’m curious if early 20th century Denmark was that much like London. Even though locations switched from Copenhagen to Paris to Germany, there was no mention of the larger political upheaval that certainly had to impact the lives of Lili and Gerda. Everyone was so very pretty and well-heeled, even while impoverished. It made for gorgeous scenes and even less sincerity to the experiences of Lili.

I’m glad that I saw the movie. The jarring rupture of Lili growing more introspective as she explored her own life while Gerda struggled to keep the  family together (and fed) tugged at my heart. I wanted Lili to be herself, but I also wondered how on earth she would sort all of that out. Her scripted lines about how she viewed the surgeries made me wonder indeed if the real Lili was so very  lacking in knowledge of human anatomy as she took this tremendous risk. And that made me start reflecting more deeply on what my own trans friends have been telling me, on the limited access to healthcare and surgeries, on the damage of body dysphoria.  Am I well-informed enough?

I was weeping as the film ended, not because Lili died but because she was willing to accept her early death to feel like a complete person even for just a moment. And I question if this was a love story. Gerda’s love for Lili was about far more than her marriage to Lili’s old self. The movie doesn’t explore that and reduces the complexity of their relationship. It was an unfortunate choice.

The crowd applauded which is a rarity this day and I was pleased that the house was about 50% full, a good sign after a two-week run. I sat lost in thought and hoping that Eddie Redmayne uses his obvious Oscar buzz chat to have genuine conversations about gender identity versus his experience as an actor.

But awards are about performances so my hopes are not too high. Perhaps the best we can expect is that a well-received movie paves the way for more conversations and more opportunities in the film industry, behind and in-front of the camera, for transgender artists.

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