Lili Elbe is born from a man’s desire to be a woman. She blooms eventually as she defeats biology to become the first ever man to undergo sex reassignment surgery, only to perish. Yet, she is a symbol of hope and strength to all those who may not be very comfortable in their own skin shares Anshika Verma as she reviews Tom Hooper’s film ‘The Danish Girl’.
“He’s comfortable in his own skin,” is usually seen as a compliment. It means that the person in context knows who he or she is and is content with that sense of identity. Unfortunately, many people around the world lack that inner peace because of a sense of gender disparity. They cannot be comfortable in their own skin, because they don’t feel that their skin is really theirs.
Before the somewhat enlightened times of the 21st century, people who couldn’t identify with a certain gender bracket suffered a great deal. ‘The Danish Girl’ originally written as a novel by David Ebershoff in 2000, is one such story of identity and victory in its own sense. 15 years later, the film directed by Tom Hooper visualises the life of the first person to undergo gender reassignment surgery.
Inspired by the true story of early 20th century, married Danish painters Einar and Gerda Wegener, ‘The Danish Girl’ is a fictionalized account of Einar’s physical transition to Lili Elbe. However, neither the book nor Lucinda Coxon’s screenplay makes any claim to absolute historical accuracy. This story changes many of the facts for dramatic purposes. The real-life situation of Lili and Gerda’s life was much more complicated than we see on screen. The result is a film that tells a simple story in a way that elicits empathy for the protagonists and enlightens the audience.
“I think Lili’s thoughts, I dream her dreams. She was always there.” – The Danish Girl
Oscar winner Eddie Redmayne plays Einar/Lili and Alicia Vikander, his wife, Gerda. The couple lives in a large apartment in Copenhagen, Denmark, where they both make a living by painting. Einar’s landscapes are in demand and more respected than Gerda’s portraits. One day when Gerda is in a hurry to finish a portrait of their mutual friend and ballerina, Oola, Gerda asks Einar to stand in as a model by putting on Oola’s stockings and heels and holding up Oola’s dress in front of him. Although the scene is played with a combination of humour and awkwardness, it’s obvious that Einar enjoys the role play. Later, he starts trying on his wife’s clothes and makeup. Gerda is a bit conflicted but being the open-minded person, she is, she suggests that her husband dress up as a woman to attend an art world function that he had been trying to avoid. And just like that, Lili is born.
A bleak note is struck from the start and continues with little respite. The mood is cold and gloomy, emphasised by the colourless, sparsely-furnished interiors (light-grey walls in their apartment, harsh white wall tiles in the clinics and consulting rooms), the bare, wintry landscapes of Copenhagen, and the minor-key music. The tempo is one-paced and the dialogue is often stilted and dreary.
Now, Einar wears women’s clothes and make-up more and more often, both at home and out in public. Lili even begins secretly seeing a local man named Henrik. Gerda is understandably upset by all this, but she never criticizes her husband’s inner turmoil or its outward manifestations. She wants to understand, and the more she does, the more she mourns her marriage, which she sees as slipping away. However, as all this is happening, her art career begins to take off. She paints Lili more and more, in fashionable clothes and in little or no clothes. As Gerda’s style develops, increasing demand for her paintings soon leads the couple to move to Paris.
Einar and Gerda never explore with each other what is happening and its implications for their relationship. Partly because of this we get little understanding of Einar’s self-perception, little sense of his insights into his condition.
In Paris, Lili blossoms as a person, even as she seeks a more permanent solution to her feeling that her biology doesn’t match her identity. She sees doctors whose diagnoses are wide-ranging, but are mainly focused on Einar having some sort of mental deficiency. Finally, Einar and Gerda find a possible solution through German doctor Kurt Warnekros. Dr. Warnekros offers to perform practically unprecedented sex reassignment surgery on Einar. Through the scenes, we don’t encounter the desperation of someone in crisis except very late on, when Einar is battling with the immediate after-effects of his operations.
‘The Danish Girl’ is a very sensitive portrayal of a very tumultuous experience in the lives of two real people in love and married. Whether you empathize with the situation of the two main characters or not, you’re likely to sympathize with them as humans. While presenting a story about the controversial topic of gender identity, Oscar-winning director Tom Hooper also tells a very humane story within the framework of the movie’s plot. At its core, this is a tale of love and loss, of tolerance and devotion, of feeling uncomfortable in one’s own skin.
Hooper draws even more focus to the characters’ feelings by choosing especially significant moments for close headshots while allowing everything beyond their necks to go out of focus.
The film deserves credit for its honesty, its emotional power and its succinct presentation of a very complicated story. However, some of the changes in the story seem designed to increase the impact of the story, a move I would call emotionally manipulative.
It’s spirit-shattering that Einar died in the arms of Gerda, and Gerda did an extraordinary job in supporting her husband. She forsook the obscure love she had for Hans, the right to be protected and caressed as a wife, and everything women think they rightfully deserve from their husbands. Einar said before he died: “How would I ever deserve such love? “Seeing him pale like a vampire, watching his hand sliding from her hand, it’s hard to imagine the heartbreak Gerda had. Would she blame herself for letting Einar go to the doctors or wear her silk pyjamas and ballet dress to boost her own artistic career? Would she miss the man that looks in her eyes in the morning and whisper to her: “My life, my wife.” I drained my tears for her anyway.
The Danish Girl is a piece of art in itself, for its wonderful visuals, music and performances by Redmayne and Vikander. If a little more care and attention was applied to the screenplay, then this could have been a modern masterpiece.
Anshika Verma is currently studying at NIFT, Bengaluru. She was formerly in Delhi Public School, Greater Noida. She is aspiring to pursue a career in fashion journalism. Her educational background in science and now in fashion has given her a broad base and a vision to approach topics differently. Her heart still lies close to Delhi and the incredible stories that she carries from there.
This essay was written for the ‘Creative Writing’ course at NIFT, Bengaluru.
Read more film reviews on Bengaluru Review :
The question of LGBTQ in Indian cinema
Silent rhapsody or silenced womanhood?
Reaffirming our belief in the art of cinema