Danish Girl [Tom Hooper, 2015] is a great film on how sex reassignment was conceived in the 1920s. Sex reassignment was a brave attempt at that time and it would take many decades before Caitlyn Jenner, Laverne Cox, Mandi Camille Hauwert or Andreja Pejic could even dream in their mothers’ wombs. The film explores gender inequality and identity in Denmark at a time when no other country was thinking about such questions. But Denmark has been speaking openly of sexuality for quite some time. It was the first country in the world to legalize printed pornography, in 1967 and which lifted censorship of all movies for adults in 1969, and the first to legalize same-sex civil unions, in 1989 (Same-sex marriage was sanctioned there in 2012) and the first European country to allow a legal change of gender without requiring a medical diagnosis in 2014 [http://www.nytimes.com/2015/11/22/movies/eros-and-identity-meet-again-in-copenhagen-in-the-danish-girl.html].
Danish Girl is the story of a transgender sex experiment gone wrong, even fatal, but it is also so many things:
- a story of unconditional love; the kind we see, read about and feel between mother and child, but in the film between husband and wife
- a beautiful love story
- complete illustration of “if you love something set it free”
- a story of modern-day identity issues, despite same sex marriage and laws
- a story about gender troubles
- how art creates life and can destroy it.
Gerda Wegener [Alicia Vikander] is a painter whose muse is her husband, Einar [Eddie Redmayne], whom she paints into female existence. She paints a nude body with Einar’s female face stretched out languidly in a classical pose, which calls to mind Manet’s Olympia or Auguste’s Odalisque:
These two nudes have a striking resemblance to the masterpiece of Lili’s subdued longing that Gerda paints on canvas:
The film opens on the female gaze projected onto the man. Gerda Wegener is a very empowered woman in the Mulveyian sense: the woman is the one who possesses the gaze, not the man. And Gerda’s gaze in fact fixes her husband Einar into femininity. When Gerda’s passion for art wanes, she encourages Einar to dress up and pose for her. She doesn’t have to try very hard however as Einar, after 6 years of childless marriage to Gerda, becomes enamored with his feminine side and begins to inhabit a woman’s body in the real world more and more and not simply for Gerda’s bemusement as an artist. Einar becomes Lili by dressing in women’s garb when he could no longer exist in his man’s body. He opts for sex reassignment surgery to become Lili Elbe permanently. This operation would be the first time such a surgery would take place, and despite its high risks, pain and failure, Einar goes for it. The character on which the cinematic Lili is based is a real person whose multiple surgeries ended her life in 1931 due to complications stemming from what may have been the attempted transplant of a uterus.
Throughout Einar’s urges, stages and social stigmas of becoming a woman in the 1930s, it is Gerda who remains a powerful source of emotional support for Einar cum Lili. Einar is also brave as two french try to beat the femininity out of him. Despite the great pain and loss we see Gerda experiencing, she is unable to draw strength from her husband’s touch and hug; she, too, needs support, but he cannot give it. At one point she quits on him when he decides to do the second half of the surgery prematurely which would complete his transformation as a woman, because she feared she’d lose him. But in the end, she goes to Dresden to be at his side.
Eddie Redmayne is brilliant as transgendered Lili in Danish girl, as he was in The Theory of Everything, as Stephen Hawking, and so is Alicia Vikander, who owns the screen and gaze at the very opening of the film. But she serves as a showcase for Redmayne’s talent. Her own talent and role dim before Lili’s, Einar’s or Redmayne’s. And even though the film is multi layered, there is no room to tell her story. We can read her story from the silence of her expression and face and we feel her emotionally heartbreaking story of loss, pain and void, because she loves him so undyingly.
The film is a novel’s adaptation, and concentrates on Einar, who is clearly and socially stigmatized in the film; doctors branding as “perverse’. He’s a tragic figure who is tormented because, he, too loves his wife but cannot fulfill his husbandly duties. But the film ends tragically for Gerda also, who begins the film with great presence; a close up of a strong gaze and voice, cigarette in one hand and paint brush in the other, which gives the impression of female agency, but in the end the film subscribes to the male gaze, and Gerda reverts to sublimating herself and her desires, bearing her loss silently, alone. She is subsumed in his coming out story unconditionally.