And Then One Day Things Weren’t Quite So Fine

The Danish Girl (Tom Hooper, 2015)

And oddly, it was only later, that I pondered which one it is.

I mean, the film is clearly meant to be about Danish artist Einar Wegener, seen fingering dresses from early on in the film, forced (not entirely unwillingly it must be noted) to wear female clothes for his wife Gerda Gottlieb’s paintings and who begins to realise that he is really she, and begins a journey to becoming Lili Elbe.

Except, it’s not taken directly from Elbe’s own diary, but rather a 2000 novel by David Ebershoff, which plays hard and fast with the truth, apparently making Gerda Greta, an American. At least some of the facts get reinstated, as far as I can see. Not all, mind. Hans Axgil (art dealer and Einar’s childhood friend) and Henrik (artist and Lili’s friend) are not real people.

And I guess we cannot help but think of the Girl of the Millennium Trilogy, she who has a dragon tattoo, plays with fire and kicks hornets’ nests. Maybe she has a pearl earring. Not quite a woman.

But then there is Gerda, who is referred to as the Danish girl, the frustrated artist, unable to break through with her portraits even as Einar is lauded for his landscapes until she finds Lili. Clearly she faces traumas and betrayals as her husband undergoes her transformation, sometimes protesting, sometimes supporting. Whose traumas are the more important?

The real Gerda was not like that — she apparently produced a variety of erotica, was more ambiguous in her sexuality and had split from Lili by the time of her fourth operation. She seems a far more active character than the film allows her to be.

But then there are some glorious moments for her, painting a portrait of a middle-aged man, discussing the politics of women looking and men being looked at, seven decades before and four decades after Mulvey’s male gaze. Bad things happen when the woman looks, she is punished… see Bluebeard and so forth. When Einar is Lili, she seems to have left art behind, as if Lili herself is her greatest work of art. Gerda, pointedly, wants to be a woman and an artist. Or an artist who is a woman.

And so we are taken up by the spectacle — Eddie Redmayne, whose performance in Savage Grace (Tom Kalin, 2007) I preferred rather more than the one in Jupiter Ascending (The Wachowskis, 2015), won an Oscar for his Stephen Hawking portrayal and I suspect will get a nomination for this. It’s a brave role and a strong performance, although I see that there has been objection to having a cisgendered actor play the part. As a cisman, I don’t see a problem — although I guess one issue is one of defining at what point she is a woman. Is it not a film about a man transitioning into her correct sex rather than about a woman who happened to be born a man? But then I’m defining sex by surgery. In one shot, she is clearly a man — although there’s an awkward voyeurism to the moment and a strange fetishization.

Is it a problem here that I feel that Redmayne is performing Lili performing woman rather than performing Lili being a woman? Is it a problem that at one point I felt we had started channelling Some Like It Hot (Billy Wilder, 1959)? Lili is coy and yet flirtatious, works at a perfume counter giving advice to women of a certain age, hanging out for the gossip.

In the room the women come and go…

And I cannot help but recall that the last (no, last but one) thing I saw Alicia Vikander in was Ex Machina (Alex Garland, 2015), as a fembot caught between Domnall Gleeson and Oscar Isaac (whatever happened to them?) in a gender awkward replay of Bluebeard with a heart of misogyny. (In my reading at least. The less said about the film’s racial politics, the better.) Is she destined to play the kind of girl woman who has to fight to not be constructed by men? (Oh, she was in The Man From UNCLE (Guy Ritchie, 2015). Do I rest my case?)

Gender identities can oppress people of all genders, sexes and sexualities. Or be a useful tool.

It really does occur to me that I’d rather have seen Tom Kalin’s version. Or Todd Haynes’.

The film works so hard to make us care and it gives us some glimpses into the barbarities of the age (although escape through the window of a doctor’s surgery is a little too comic book). We have the tragic ending that queer stories almost always have to have (although, see Carol (Todd Haynes, 2015)). The scarf that is a symbol of Gerda and Einar/Lili’s love becomes tied up with the kite that is the symbol of Einar/Lili’s childhood.

Is that a lump in your throat, Butler?

More than eighty years on, we have come so far? We have left the voyeurism and the medicalisation of identity behind. Haven’t we? That was a less enlightened age. Wasn’t it?

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