Tom Hooper’s The Danish Girl is blatant Oscar bait and it knows it. Telling the story of Lili Elbe, one of the first people to ever undergo gender confirmation surgery (as far as we know), it taps into the hot-button issue of trans rights while giving Academy voters exactly what they want: beautiful scenery, swelling scores, and symmetrically faced white people in impossibly tragic situations.
Elbe’s story is hugely important to LGBTQ history, but is largely forgotten by the mainstream: Born anatomically male with the name Einar Wegener in 1882, Elbe—a painter—lived the first few decades of her life trapped in a male body. At 21, she married fellow artist Gerda Wegener. One day, Gerda—pressed on a deadline—asked her husband to wear women’s clothing and stand in for her model. While Elbe always secretly knew that she was a woman, posing as female for Gerda opened a door that she didn’t know was openable. By 1912, the couple moved from Copenhagen to Paris, where Elbe began openly living as a woman.
In 1930, Elbe met a team of doctors from Dresden who were willing to attempt a series of gender confirmation surgeries that would fully transform her body from male to female. The procedures were experimental and exceedingly dangerous, but to Lili—who constantly dreamed of marrying a husband and bearing children—the risks were worth the rewards. Sadly, she died from surgical complications in 1931, but her diaries—published as the memoir Man into Woman: The First Sex Change—live on as a precious document. David Ebershoff’s 2001 novel The Danish Girl is a fictionalized account of her life and romance with Gerda.
Considering Elbe’s legacy and her importance to trans history, there’s something a little strange and uncomfortable about watching The Danish Girl. Helmed by a cisgender director, boasting a mostly cisgender production team, and starring cisgender actor Eddie Redmayne, the film—based on a novel by a cisgender author—can’t help but feel a little shallow. While in reality, trans people still struggle for basic human rights, trans issues—to put it cynically—are more marketable now than they’ve ever been before. Caitlyn Jenner has posed on the cover of Vanity Fair, Laverne Cox stars on Orange Is the New Black, Miley Cyrus identifies as gender fluid. At this point, there’s nothing terribly bold or new about a straight, cis actor playing a trans woman. (Even more cynically, I’ll point out that actors are consistently nominated for Academy Awards because they play trans characters. Whether or not the Academy is as kind to actual trans women remains to be seen.)
To the film’s credit, I’ll say that The Danish Girl takes very good care of its titular subject. Hooper and screenwriter Lucinda Coxon have obviously done their best to tell Elbe’s story with absolute sensitivity (the press notes even offer a brief primer on the appropriate vocabulary for writing about trans issues) and, logically, the role makes sense for Redmayne as most of the film takes place before Elbe begins living her life openly as a woman. Nothing about Redmayne’s portrayal of Elbe seems flippant and it’s clear that—like the rest of the cast and crew—he’s fully devoted himself to doing right by her. The hard work is evident.
I’m left feeling ambivalent about it. Peppered throughout the film are moments where characters toe the line of being interesting and maybe even groundbreaking, but—disappointingly—they never step over it.
The Danish Girl, at its best, could be a bold reflection of the way that gender norms are restrictive and damaging to everyone, not just Lili. We start to see it with Gerda (played magnificently by Alicia Vikander), who is constantly pushing at the limits of womanhood and wifedom—whether by wearing ankle-baring skirts or struggling to sell her portraits or barely batting an eye when she discovers that her husband is wearing her underpinnings. But whether her husband is Einar or Lili, Gerda’s wants and needs remain secondary in importance—both to society and to the film.
The filmmakers will tell you over and over again that The Danish Girl is first and foremost a love story between Lili and Gerda, and they’re certainly not wrong. What’s unfortunate, however, is how that love story—with its focus on Gerda’s selflessness and Lili’s bravery—often comes at the price of critical commentary, the very thing that would actually make the film brave.
The first time Lili appears in public as a woman (her dutiful wife by her side), she’s kissed against her will by a male artist.
“You didn’t ask permission,” she says. “I couldn’t risk you saying no,” he replies.
I wanted them to stay and explore this moment—explore the cost of womanhood and the way that simply dressing in female clothing (at this point in the film, Lili still predominantly presents as male) takes away a person’s basic right to accept and decline. But the movie doesn’t stay there. It moves along to Lili’s newfound attraction to her aggressive male suitor, subtly playing into the very type of sexism that I had hoped the film would more blatantly address.
There are plenty of ways in which The Danish Girl works just fine. Visually, it’s absolutely stunning and reflective of Lili and Elbe’s art. From the barren Danish exterior shots to the warm curves of the Parisian art nouveau architecture to the costumes to the intimate closeups of Redmayne and Vikander—my eyes couldn’t drink in enough (realistically, I probably would have watched an additional hour of the film if it promised to be just as beautiful). It’s well-acted and well-directed and I’d be lying if I said that I wasn’t crying by the end.
But there’s a line in the beginning of the film that stayed with me, nagging at the edge of my mind the whole way through, which made it challenging to fully enjoy the movie.
“It’s hard for a man to submit to a woman’s gaze,” Gerda says to one of her portrait subjects. It’s a little heavy-handed, but an interesting thought—one that I wish filmmakers would have taken into greater consideration when plotting out the film. So much effort is expended to condense Elbe’s story into a preexisting Oscar formula and I wish—despite enjoying the movie—that Hooper and company would have submitted to a final product (perhaps something based more on Elbe’s diaries than the novelization of her life) that was a little more truthful, courageous, and authentic.
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Image via The Danish Girl/Focus Features.