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The Danish Girl

December 10, 2015
The Danish Girl

The more distance I get from watching The Danish Girl, the lower my opinion gets. The lush visuals of early 20th-century Copenhagen and Paris aside, this is thin Oscar-bait trying to capitalize on the current transgender vogue to appeal to Academy voters wanting to congratulate themselves on being oh so broad-minded.

Which is not to say that trans people are a passing fad, or that their stories are not worth telling. Far from it. But we are now at the point in mainstream acceptance where homosexuality was a few decades ago, and evidently we’re going to have to go through the same spate of films about a minority community that are really by, for, and designed to reinforce the dominant narratives of the mainstream view of that community.

Specifically, why are we getting a story about Lili Elbe in the first place? she was one of the first trans women to surgically transition. And everything in the film is ultimately pointing towards that end. Never mind that the real Lili Elbe lived openly as a woman for almost twenty years in Paris before going to Dresden for the experimental sex reassignment surgery. And why this story, over all the other possible trans stories? because, to most mainstream cis — i.e. non-trans — audiences, transgender is identical to sex reassignment, when the truth is much more complicated and trans people’s lives are about a lot more than what they happen to look like naked.

And there’s a lot more to Lili Elbe’s life than the movie version (played by Eddie “Lips” Redmayne, about which more later). As I said before, Elbe and her wife Gerda Gottlieb (Alicia Vikander) actually lived openly for years in Paris, not that you would know it from Lucinda Coxon’s screenplay or Tom Hooper’s direction. To hear the movie tell it, they only moved to Paris when Gerda’s portraits of Lili attracted interest, and Lili only came along under protest. Once there, the movie’s Lili hides away from the public in shame, and Gerda is disappointed whenever she comes home to Lili instead of her husband, Einar Wegener. Neither was actually the case.

In fact, the couple settled in Paris because they could live openly with Lili presenting as a woman, she and Gerda could present as a lesbian couple, and Gerda could produce her striking lesbian erotica. And yet the only glimpse we see of Lili’s reception in Paris is a gay-bashing that, a nauseatingly pointed camera move makes awkwardly clear, “turns her world upside-down”. This, along with Gerda seeking out one of Lili’s childhood friends who knew her as Einar (Matthias Schoenaerts), is all we get from nearly half of Lili’s life.

And through all the struggles the movie presents, Lili is consistently treated as “really” Einar, a man who believes himself to be a woman, rather than as a woman whose physical sex did not match her mental self-image. At best it portrays the Einar/Lili difference as something close to multiple-personality disorder. It even makes clear how far back these feelings went in Lili’s life, and yet still treats her as originally and fundamentally a man.

This does, naturally, present an odd corner-case to my usual application of the Bechdel-Wallace test, since the only interactions between women other than Gerda and Lili are between Gerda and her friend Oola (Amber Heard), and these are all about Lili as well. But since the movie steadfastly behaves as if Einar is “real”, do any of these conversations count? I’m forced to conclude that, as presented in the movie, they do not.

Which brings me back to Redmayne, and the mistake of casting him in the first place. If this were really a breakthrough movie for trans representation and acceptance, why not actually cast a trans actress to play the part, instead of a cis man? Well, for one thing, Eddie wants more awards. He already did the “play handicapped” trick last year, and he’s not classically handsome enough to do the “really beautiful person plays really ugly” trick, so he’s down to “go queer or go home”.

But beside those cheap tricks, casting Redmayne highlights the fact that The Danish Girl doesn’t actually think of Lili as really being a woman at all. The title itself, when it shows up as a line of dialogue, refers to Gerda, not Lili. For all its beautiful pictures, this is a movie that not only doesn’t understand trans people, it seeks to profit off of their hard-won visibility. Don’t let it.

Worth It: no.
Bechdel-Wallace Test: as qualified above, fail.

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