This poignant biopic of the transgender artist Lili Elbe, who was one of the first people to undergo sex reassignment surgery, and wife Gerda Wegener, is certainly one of the best movies to come out in the last year.
The film starts in a colourful early 20th century Copenhagen, where the couple lives a happy, affectionate, sensual marriage. Lili is still Einar Wegener, a successful painter especially renowned for his Nordic landscapes, while Gerda is struggling as a portraitist. One day, her ballerina friend is late for a portrait sitting and Gerda asks her husband to act as substitute. He obliges and playfully glides into her stocking and ballerina shoes, but his reaction makes it clear that this experience awakes long forgotten feelings. Later, he comments enthusiastically on Gerda’s new nightgown: “I might let you wear it,” Gerda teases, “I might enjoy it,” Einar replies. Together, they enter this sort of erotic game and create the persona of Lili, a mysterious femme fatale. Gerda paints her and even convinces Einar to accompany her to a ball dressed as Lili. But after the portraitist finds her husband/Lili kissing another man, the couple gradually realizes that this is more than just a game and that Lili has changed their lives forever.
One of the most interesting aspects of this film is that both characters are given equal weight in their evolution, which is presented in parallel throughout the film. Even the title is ambiguous as to whom the story is truly about. Obviously Eddie Redmayne’s performance implies a greater transformation, which he succeeds beautifully, although his delicate hand movements and head tilting become exaggerated and slightly annoying as the film goes on. Alicia Vikander’s performance on the other hand is incredible. Where Redmayne focuses on physicality, she concentrates on Gerda’s emotional journey and the strength of her performance lies in her subtlety. She masters the tragic portrayal of an independent woman who, by creating a muse, is losing the man she loves and her brave acknowledgement of the inevitability of this happening as well as her constant support for her partner.
In fact, women are represented in a very satisfying way. In a scene where a man sitting for Gerda explains his discomfort at being observed, she explains knowingly that “it is hard for a man to be looked at. Women are used to it. It’s hard for a man to submit to a woman’s gaze. It’s unsettling. All though there is some pleasure to be had from it. Once you yield”. Women are looked at not as objects of desire but as fascinating creatures that one cannot help but admire. And as Einar strives to become Lili, we are reminded of the delights of womanhood which is an agreeable variation to their usual representation in dramatic films.
This film expresses a deep love for art, as every shot of a landscape, every reflection in the water looks as if they had been painted – or more particularly they remind us of Einar’s paintings. It is as if through his art he was recreating the world and making it his own. There is a scene in a crowded Paris salon, where Gerda is exhibiting her series of Lili’s nude portraits, and the guests are astounded by her beauty with one of them asking Gerda if the enigmatic model has come to the party. “I’m afraid she’s not here,” she replies, looking at her husband standing just a few feet away from her, smiling awkwardly. He looks around and sees his true inner self in his wife’s art and it is heart-breaking to watch as no one else realizes that it is him, or rather her, they are complimenting. Art becomes an effective tool of revelation for him and for the audience, and stands in high contrast with the brutal reality of his male physicality.
The director, Tom Hooper’s emphasis on aesthetics makes the film not only a delight to watch but also more relatable. It is more than just the story about gender but a reflection on appearances and representation in general, making Lili’s inner turmoil understandable to the audience. It is impossible not to be moved by this story and these characters and will certainly open the minds of many when it comes to transgender issues.
Is it worth watching?
+ Beautiful aesthetic
+ Alicia Vikander’s performance
Watch the trailer for The Danish Girl
[su_youtube url=”https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=d88APYIGkjk” height=”960″]