The Danish Girl

When someone like Todd Haynes gives a conventional treatment to unconventional stories, like Carol, he uses the context of the era and a certain ironic detachment which raise his films above melodrama. Tom Hooper, the director of The Danish Girl, and his writer, Lucinda Coxon, are only interested in melodrama and they trample over everything else. Watching The Danish Girl is like hearing a generic power ballad: a synthesized load of hysterical, sanitized, empty emotion. Sentimentality is the poison of truth. This movie is a sentimental waste.

Even though the story of transgender pioneer Lili Elbe (neé Einar Wegener, a man) and her wife Gerda is set at the turn of the century, in Hopper’s version it could have been set at any other time in history. He completely ignores the zeitgeist, an era of feverish and rapid transition to modernity, which could have richly echoed his hero/heroine’s own gender rite of passage. In fact, this movie could be set in Mars, and it would make no difference. It is under written and over directed, and it strands two excellent actors, Alicia Vikander and Eddie Redmayne, in a vale of tears.

Alexandre Desplat’s lush but gooey score is a good illustration of the mistaken temperament that courses through this movie. Instead of using the music of the time as inspiration, Desplat writes a mawkish score that, except for four notes I’m convinced he borrowed elsewhere, is devoid of any relation to the music of the era. Worse, there is no real ambiguity in this story of deep, layered gender ambivalence. The characters are mostly presented as saintly people. Einar/Lili is a poor woman trapped in a man’s body and she is either gripped by unhappiness or by tremulous joy. There’s little in between. I expected to see rage, willfulness, or callousness in Einar’s dogged pursuit of his truth — something with an edge. But the writing is all declarations of undying love or recriminations: it has the level of a soap opera.

It is not the actors’ fault. They give it everything they have, but it seems that they have either been instructed to emote as much as possible, or the director has chosen their cheesiest takes. Hooper steadfastly ignores any dark human traits that do not hew to the unhappiness-happiness continuum. At first I was appalled to see a fantastic actress like Vikander trying too hard to convince us and herself that she is a spirited and bossy painter, stomping around her atelier like a child pretending to be a general. Later in the movie she becomes better and, despite her director’s best intentions, has moments of real, heartbreaking confusion. Still, the actors are saddled with an unimaginative and corny script. I had to go to Wikipedia after the movie to confirm what I suspected all along, which is that Gerda must not have been the paragon of heterosexuality herself. Turns out she was a full out lesbian who specialized in exquisite and explicit lesbian erotic illustrations. The movie does not mention this, and deliberately obscures Gerda’s lesbianism, so poor Vikander is left playing a shell. No wonder she seems a little lost. It’s all fake.

Redmayne is a magnetic and sensual actor. Here, when not crying rivers of tears, he finds the charm and longing in Lili, as well as the storm of conflicted feelings inside Einar. He brings the sexy all by himself: Redmayne swoons and does arousal better than anyone else onscreen, male or female. But since this is a sentimental movie, it is predicated on his character’s noble suffering, and that gets old fast. There is nothing really adventuresome in this film, a sense of humor is sorely lacking, and everything is bathed in virtue, and worse, cliché. The best scene is one in which Gerda starts undressing her husband to find he is wearing her silk camisole underneath. Redmayne is transfixed by arousal and she finds it arousing too. If only there had been more of this kind of exploration. Are we really that binary? What are the gradations of gender identification and sexual desire? The movie is too busy being trite and careful to dwell on these things.

Even when the irresistible Matthias Schoenaerts arrives to save the day (and that he does, making himself useful by refusing to shed a single tear), Gerda feels horribly guilty for kissing him, even after her own husband has virtually become a woman and refuses to come back to her. Are we expected to believe that these artists living in Paris and Copenhagen at the dawn of the 20th century behaved like such bourgeois prudes? The fact that The Danish Girl insists on presenting Gerda as a card-carrying straight woman makes it completely dishonest, and a disservice to its own topic.

What is appalling about this movie is not that a heterosexual actor is playing a transgender character (when you find a transgender Eddie Redmayne, and by that I not only mean someone with his talent, but also someone with his Oscar and his star power, we’ll talk). It’s that a committee apparently has decided to make transgendered people and their lovers palatable to a mainstream audience by discarding everything that is visceral, messy, sexual, mysterious and true about their experience and substituting it for toothless pablum.


Originally published at grandenchiladafilmblog.blogspot.com on November 28, 2015.

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