Monday, February 29, 2016

"The Danish Girl": review


This past Saturday, I watched "The Danish Girl" with Lig at Ewha University's scaled-down Arthouse Momo theater (Lig tells me that momo is Japanese for "peach"). The movie was better than I had expected it to be. "The Danish Girl" is based on a 2000 novel (also titled The Danish Girl) by David Ebershoff. The novel is at least loosely rooted in fact: the protagonist, Lili Elbe, did actually exist and was actually one of the first people to undergo sex-reassignment surgery, which is what makes this film so significant.

The movie stars Eddie Redmayne as Danish landscape artist Einar Wegener, with Alicia Vikander (fresh from her star turn in "Ex Machina," reviewed here) as Gerda Wegener, Einar's portrait-artist wife. At the beginning of the story, Einar and Gerda are a happily married couple; Einar's artwork is often showcased, and the two enjoy a more or less comfortable living in Copenhagen. We see hints, early on, that Einar may have a repressed feminine side: whenever he visits the wardrobe of a dance studio, he likes running his fingers over the women's various costumes. Gerda one day asks Einar to model as a woman for her because her regular model is unable to make it. Nervous, Einar does so, putting on stockings and feminine footwear, and draping a dress over himself so that Gerda can get the light and shadow of the wrinkles in the cloth correct. This proves to be something of a triggering moment for Einar, who begins to give in more fully to his long-hidden proclivities.

Gerda isn't stupid: she sees that some sort of change has come over her husband, but for the moment she finds this change more amusing than worrisome. Some time after Einar's modeling session, Gerda playfully suggests that Einar dress completely in drag to attend one of the art functions he normally despises. Einar consents, privately eager, and goes to the function with Gerda. Of course, Einar can't be Einar, so he adopts the moniker Lili Elbe, a name—and an identity—he has harbored since childhood, back when one of his male friends, Hans, kissed him on a whim. While at the function, Einar meets Henrik, who makes very forward advances. They kiss, and Gerda happens to witness the moment (I doubt this is biographically accurate; it has a strong whiff of soap opera about it).

Thus begins the marital strife, and a large part of this interesting movie deals with the radically, inevitably changing relationship between Einar and Gerda, a couple that had seemed so happy until Einar began to realize that, in his current incarnation, he was not his true self: he was and had been, in fact, Lili Elbe all along. Einar meets with Henrik again, only to discover that Henrik has known that Einar was a man. Henrik is fine with this because he's gay: he wants Einar, not Lili. Einar flees from Henrik, and in this way the movie quietly teaches us something about the complexity of human sexuality: Einar's innate tendencies don't make him gay. There is a significant difference between what Einar is and homosexuality.

Gerda has been painting portraits of Einar-as-Lili, and this is some of her most inspired work. She begins to become a successful artist in her own right and is eventually called to Paris, where she has received an offer to have her work shown by a major broker. Einar, internally torn and depressed, comes with her. His hope is to seek treatment for what he initially believes to be a mental condition; meanwhile, his wife has the chance to mingle with luminaries in the French art scene.

Gerda is attentive to her husband's pain, however, and she tracks down Hans, Einar's childhood friend, who now works as an art dealer in Paris. She feels that Hans might be able to help Einar through his network of connections. Hans's involvement becomes problematic, however: Gerda finds herself attracted to him, and the feeling is mutual. This attraction is happening right at the moment that Einar is blossoming more and more fully into his Lili incarnation, and as Lili, Einar feels he is a different person, and thus not Gerda's true husband. Imagine how all of this feels from Gerda's point of view: the man she loves is transforming, phase-shifting out from under his marital commitments by becoming a completely different person. Hans, for his part, immediately senses that the situation with Einar/Lili requires tact and delicacy, and he never once does anything to try to shatter his old friend's self-conception.

Einar goes from doctor to doctor. Some declare him insane and move to lock him up in their institutions, but Einar always manages to escape. Einar is mistaken for a lesbian by some Parisian toughs; a fight ensues, and he gets beaten up. Gerda eventually finds Dr. Warnekros, a pioneering surgeon visiting Paris but based in Germany. Warnekros proposes sex-reassignment surgery to Einar, who consents despite the enormous risk. The surgery will be in two phases: first comes the removal of the male genitalia; next comes the creation of a vagina. Warnekros recommends a decent period of convalescence between the two phases. Einar goes to Germany alone, but Gerda and Hans both show up to be with him—now more fully her. While convalescing, Lili begins working at an upscale parfumerie in Copenhagen. She meets Henrik again, but Henrik is visibly disconcerted when he discovers that Lili has undergone surgery. "A woman? A real woman?" he stammers. This wasn't what Henrik had wanted at all, so he exits the story, never to be heard from again.

Impatient to complete her transition, Lili insists on returning to Germany to undergo the second phase of the reassignment. Gerda, no longer Einar's wife but now something more like Lili's companion, is worried that undergoing the second surgery so soon would be too dangerous, but Lili is adamant. The movie ends with Lili coming out of an infection-related fever, anemic and extremely weak. She asks to be rolled out to the waterside gardens, where she can enjoy the sunlight, the fresh air, and the surrounding natural beauty. As Gerda listens, Lili speaks of a dream she'd had: one in which she was born a girl, and her mother looked down at her and called her "Lili." And with that, Lili Elbe slips away. Gerda and Hans return to Denmark, to the stand of five skeletal trees that Einar had painted over and over, thus leading to his success. On a windy promontory, Gerda loses the scarf that she and Einar/Lili had passed back and forth between them; the camera lingers on the flying scarf, which clearly symbolizes the flight of a liberated soul. A title card informs us that Gerda Wegener continued to paint portraits of Lili for the rest of her life.

"The Danish Girl" isn't my normal cup of tea; "Deadpool" is more my speed. Tom Hooper's Eurodrama is a slow-paced, thoughtful film, compassionately written, with the obvious goal of trying to have the viewer understand something of what it must be like to be Lili—to be a soul tormented by the conviction that this is the wrong body. We don't actually hear the classic phrase "woman trapped in a man's body" until the film is two-thirds over, but the film spends an enormous amount of time building up to that utterance. At one point, Gerda blames herself for Einar's deteriorating mental state: she was, after all, the one who had asked Einar to dress up in women's clothing and to attend that art function in drag. But Einar reassures her, saying that she had merely awoken something that had always been there, and this is a crucial point. Einar isn't a homosexual; he's something else entirely. I tip my hat to the screenwriters for making this point in a very show-don't-tell manner. The writers could have bashed us over the head with what was going on, using didactic expository dialogue. Instead, the movie's themes and arguments simply arise, like morning mist, from the natural workings of the plot as the story unfolds.

The cinematography also deserves mention: the evocation of 1920s-era Denmark and Paris was well done. Much of what I saw dovetailed with my own memories of Europe, as well as my memories of visiting my great-aunt and great-uncle in New Jersey: both of them were artists, and they lived in an ancient home festooned with paintings.

The actors also deserve praise. I already know Eddie Redmayne as a talented actor in both the dramatic and the physical senses; you'll recall my review of "The Theory of Everything" here. Once again, Redmayne is tasked with portraying someone who, in undergoing an inexorable transition, begins to manifest radically different mannerisms. As with Redmayne's portrayal of Stephen Hawking's deterioration, the actor's transformation here is accomplished with both mastery and subtlety. He inhabits the role.

The whole world now knows that Alicia Vikander received a Best Supporting Actress Oscar at the 2016 Academy Awards for her portrayal of Gerda Wegener. I have to say that, in the end, I may have had more sympathy for Gerda than I had for Einar/Lili. Lili, at least, saw who she was and where she needed to go with increasing clarity. Gerda, by contrast, began the film secure in a happy marriage, only to have the rug pulled out from under her life. She was plunged into chaos. Whether Lili lives or dies, Gerda loses a beloved spouse, and the movie stresses that Gerda tried to express that love even when it was hopeless to do so. The film shows us that revealing one's unconventional sexuality isn't merely a personal matter: it inevitably affects others, too. We don't go through life alone; everything we do creates ripples—everything we do has consequences for us and our inner circle. "The Danish Girl" isn't merely the story of Lili Elbe; it's the story of Lili and Gerda.

All in all, I was glad to have seen the movie. It made me think. I suppose the central message is that we need to be understanding about those who are different. Even though they're different, they're still fellow human beings, and we're all on this cosmic voyage together. Lili Elbe—the real Lili Elbe who kept a journal and scrupulously chronicled her trials (the movie mentions the journal)—was a brave soul who risked everything to become more fully who she was. I might not understand where she was coming from, but I have nothing but respect for such courage, and wish she could have led a longer, happier life.



Bratfink said...

I adore Eddie Redmayne.

Thanks for this review. I thoroughly enjoyed reading it. xoxox

Kevin Kim said...

I am but to serve. You're welcome.