WHY The Danish Girl is Such Good Art
Art needs no purpose, but occasionally it strikes a chord, and you just end up learning a thing or two.
A few weekends ago, I watched a play titled Ila. It was about a transgender woman in India, who finds it difficult to have her world accept her as a woman. The woman (Ila) inside the man's body, was artistically represented by a dancer (in a nod surely to Inside Out). As I watched these actors put on their fine performance, and rant about identity, I found it difficult to comprehend this fight for self identity.
Easy to sympathise with, but not understand this need to have your identity validated by a world that we are born into with little appreciation for individuality. (And quickly swing the other way to achieve oversaturated social media posts)
And then I watched The Danish Girl, a movie by no means perfect. It has several intrinsic problems, the least not being a man being cast to play a transgender role, or how it glosses over the intricacies of gender identity to appeal to mainstream audience.
But it was beautiful. And powerful. And a bit sad. Which is enough in my book, for it to constitute great art.
Based on a (fiction) book on Lili Elbe, one of the first recorded men to undergo sex reassignment surgery to become a woman, the movie claims to be a true story but takes several artistic liberties. Eddie Redmayne goes from portraying the shy, brilliant landscape artist Einar Wegener in Copenhagen in the 1920s, to Lili Elbe, the woman who has always been a part of him. His wife, Gerda (played by Alicia Vikander), as she initially struggles to find success in a man’s world of art through her portraits, finds a perfect muse in Einar wearing a dress.
What begins as a game quickly spirals into a difficult series of events. As her profession finds unprecedented success, Einar loses interest in his work, tied as it is to his identity as a man.
Einar Wegener’s depiction of the Danish Vejle Fjord
There are moments of tragedy interspersed throughout the movie, but director Tom Hooper's style of direction ensures that they linger as melancholic scenes, rather than tear jerkers. A particular scene that remains, is the radiation treatment prescribed to cure Einar of his 'sickness.'
Einar, whilst being beaten by thugs who question him if he is man or woman, even goes to the extent of contemplating suicide, but dithers as it would also mean killing Lili. From initial, awkward scenes of crudely applied make-up and lace dresses to completely accepting that he no longer wishes to associate himself with Einar, we are taken on a journey with Lili.
He initially asks his wife if he is pretty, lamenting that he will never be as beautiful as her. Pretty clothes, make-up and posture do not consign feminine identity, but for Lili, they seem to affirm them. They are after all how we choose to represent ourselves to the world, but only after having embraced them.
The true Danish Girl in the film is Gerda, with Alicia Vikander bringing an extremely humane depiction to life on screen. From initial excitement, to the bitterness and sorrow of finding out her husband has cheated on her as Lili, to empathising with Lili who no longer wishes for any psychological treatment, and finally reaching acceptance to help Lili find a small measure of happiness.
We are Gerda*, or what we would be in a perfect world. What we should at least aspire to be.
* Those of us who aren’t transgender that is. My obtuseness pointed out by a kind stranger on the internet.
That is the gift The Danish Girl gave me, a small lantern on my path towards empathy, and to show that there is more to sexual identity than sex. In a world stricken with cynicism, and politicised (transgender bathrooms) events, it is easy to overlook the importance empathy plays in our lives.
If we cannot understand this need for identity validation, it is imperative to empathise. The name Ila, did after all, mean quite a bit. At least to one person. And that makes it worth respecting.