Tuesday, January 10, 2017

The Danish Girl (Working Title Films, Pretty Pictures, ReVision Features, Focus Features, 2015)

by Mark Gabrish Conlan • Copyright © 2017 by Mark Gabrish Conlan • All rights reserved

The Danish Girl, which Charles and I watched at a screening last night at the San Diego Public Library, turned out to be a good but quite strange movie, one of those maddening films that took a true story and pounded and pummeled it into the usual movie formulae, when a more straightforward telling of the tale might have not only been more accurate but made for a more moving and entertaining film. The Danish Girl tells the story of two Danish artists in the early 20th century, Einar (Eddie Redmayne) and Gerda (Alicia Vikander) Wegener, a married couple who are laboring in obscurity in Copenhagen when Einar suddenly — at least as it’s depicted on screen — starts developing an urge first lovingly to fondle, and then to wear, his wife’s clothing. As the film continues it becomes clear that Einar is not merely a cross-dresser; he’s actually what we would today call Transgender, but nobody (at least not in Western European culture) knew much about it then and he’s variously diagnosed as homosexual (at a time when being Gay was considered a mental illness) and schizophrenic. Oddly, Einar’s growing interest in living as a woman and his adoption of a female identity, “Lily Elbe,” sparks his wife’s success as an artist; by doing a series of paintings depicting her husband as a woman, she breaks through and attracts an art dealer in Paris, the center of the world’s art scene in the 1920’s. Her “Lily” paintings become a sensation — and people in the art world clamor to meet the model, whom she says is her husband’s cousin and a recluse who wants to stay at home and ignore the acclaim her images are winning her. Eventually the Wegeners find a doctor in Dresden, Germany who not only “gets” Transgender people the way we do now but is interested in working out surgical operations that can literally turn a man into a woman. Einar survives the first operation, the removal of his penis, but dies during the second one, an attempt to construct a functioning vagina, as a result of infection and other complications.

All this happens in the late 1920’s and early 1930’s — Lily’s final operation (the one that proves fatal) occurs in 1933, just before the Nazis take power in Germany (though that development is ignored in the movie) and destroy the records of Magnus Hirschfeld’s Institute for Sexual Research, the pioneering organization that had sponsored the first non-judgmental research on Queer people, including Trans people, and for 30 years had advocated for equal rights for Queers and against the idea that homosexuality and transgenderism were mental illnesses. The Danish Girl, directed by Tom Hooper (The King’s Speech, Les Misérables) from a script by Lucinda Coxon, has quite a few strengths, including magnificent performances by the lead actors — Redmayne is androgynous enough he’s quite convincing as both a man and a woman, and Vikander as the long-suffering wife whose understanding passes understanding (to quote Nora Ephron’s phrase about a later celebrity Transwoman, Jan nèe James Morris) is even better. The problems with this movie start with the heavy-duty fictionalization of the true story; instead of basing her script on the known facts, Coxon adapted a novel called The Danish Girl by David Ebershoff, who did his own reworking of the real story (told, more or less, by Lily herself in a 1933 memoir called From Man to Woman that was assembled from his journals and letters after her death), and Coxon made further changes to steer the story in the direction of a more or less conventional movie romance. Quite a few imdb.com “Trivia” posters exposed the differences between the real story and the one presented in the film, including the fact that the Wegeners first went to Paris and Gerda had her first successes in 1912, not the mid-1920’s (it makes more sense because the “Lily” paintings we see, done by modern artists Eve Stewart, who was also the film’s production designer, and Susannah Brough, look far more typical of fin de siècle work than the edgier styles that began to dominate the art world after World War I); that Gerda was Bisexual and the Wegeners had an open marriage (which explains why she thought they could continue to live as a couple even after Lily’s transition); and that after Lily’s death Gerda remarried to a man who spent her fortune, after which she became an alcoholic and died, penniless and forgotten, in Copenhagen in 1940.

There’s absolutely no sense in this movie of any sort of social or cultural scene; we meet an art dealer, Hans Axgil (Matthais Schoenaerts) — a fictional character — who briefly knew Einar when they were just kids (Einar briefly wore his grandmother’s apron and the otherwise totally straight Hans thought he looked so cute he kissed him on the lips, then Einar’s mom came in and broke them up) but when they’re adults is clearly after Gerda as more than just an artist he’s willing to represent (and she’s briefly tempted but stays faithful to Lily until the end), but there’s no sense of a 1920’s atmosphere. Maybe the film wouldn’t have been better if they’d slapped on records by Bix Beiderbecke, Louis Armstrong and Bessie Smith to establish “Twentiesicity,” but it would have been nice to have some indication of the social ferment of the time, the sense a lot of intellectuals had after the horrors of the First World War that all the accepted social rules had broken down and new horizons had opened up of which people like the Wegeners could take advantage. The biggest change between the real story and the film is that the real Lily didn’t die during her second operation, but during her third — an attempt to transplant a uterus into her body so she could not only function as a woman sexually but actually become a mother. With all its limitations, though, The Danish Girl is actually a quite good film; director Hooper vividly and consciously chose to create and frame images that would be reminiscent of paintings (though much of his and cinematographer Danny Cohen’s good work in this department was undone by the San Diego Public Library’s presentation, which for some reason took a film that was richly colorful — at least as much as I can tell from the trailers available on imdb.com — and turned it into an overall grayish brown; the Library’s speakers also so garbled the soundtrack it wasn’t always easy to understand the dialogue and at least two people at the screening, including Charles, thought they should have turned the subtitles on even though the movie is at least nominally in British-accented English), and though the story material got steered as much as possible into the conventions of movie romance, the film got better as it went along and Einar/Lily and Gerda became sympathetic characters with whom we could identify and want to see prevail. Indeed, by the end of the film I was stroking Charles’ back and putting my arm around his as the emotional content became more intense and I felt the pain of these two people.

Let’s face it, being Transgender is rough enough now, even though it has a name and a lot of Trans people have social role models they can point to and think to themselves (or say to others when they’re ready to come out), “That’s me.” Imagine having to deal with this when there was no name for it, when it was considered a dangerous perversion and mental illness (there’s one scene in which Einar, having gone to a doctor for help, realizes he’s about to be committed to a mental institution then and there and barely escapes from the three orderlies — one of them wielding a straitjacket — who are about to take him into custody), and there was no social framework with which someone feeling what Einar/Lily feels could understand it. (There is some anachronistic dialogue, especially towards the end, in which Lily’s Gay friend Henrik — another fictitious character — credits the doctor with having made him a woman, and Lily replies, “No, God made me a woman. But the doctor... He... The doctor is curing me of the sickness that was my disguise.” It’s a moving line but it sounds more like how being Trans is understood now than something one would have expressed in the early 1930’s.) Interestingly, The Danish Girl was first developed as a film project by Nicole Kidman, who wanted not only to direct but to star in it as Einar/Lily — and it’s interesting to think how differently the movie might have come off with a cisgender woman in the lead instead of a cisgender man (probably not as well, if only because the sex scenes between Gerda and Einar pre-transition would have been “read” by a modern audience as Lesbian), but then the big problem with putting Transgender stories on screen is how to cast them. I remember recently reading the novel Trans-Sister Radio and thinking it would make a great movie — except that the only way I could think of casting the Transgender central character would be to find an actor who was actually Trans and planning gender-reassignment surgery, and film him on both sides of the transition!