The Danish Girl (2015): a dissapointing and conservative portrayal of transsexuality

tumblr_nzdmp3HlW31s3tn06o1_540I didn’t expect much of this film when I entered the cinema. I thought I knew exactly what kind of misinterpretation of transgendered pioneer Lili Elbe I’m about to witness and I was kind of right. However, the film still managed to disappoint, no matter how very little I expected from it in the first place. Don’t get me wrong, there’s a lot to like here – the cinematography by Danny Cohen is beautiful and Alexandre Desplat’s score is great, as always. Alicia Vikander also manages to give an amazing performance, but this sadly wasn’t enough to make this film a worthwhile cinematic experience. The biggest weakness was mainly it’s “all-to-safe” and conservative screenplay, not to mention it’s false portrayal of what could (and should) have been a story about the brave life of Lili – the first publicly known person who underwent a sex reassignment surgery in 1929. But instead of introducing us to the inspirational life story of Danish painters and spouses, Einar (later Lili) and Gerda Wegener, this film chooses to tell it’s own version of the story that is only loosely inspired by their real life (even though it gives the impression that it’s based on true events). The amount of inaccuracies in the screenplay was unbelievable and downright offensive, and since films are supposed to be much more than just pretty pictures with good acting, The Danish Girl ended up being just another example of a film where style prevails over any kind of substance.

tumblr_nyyk79Odaj1s8esgpo4_1280Both Einar and his wife Gerda were fascinating, open-minded and somewhat controversial people who lived in 1920’s bohemian Paris where they both experimented with their sexuality. Yes, both. Gerda was far from a woman who lived in a shadow of her husband’s talent and who wouldn’t get her big break until she started to paint her husband in women’s clothings. Apart from her paintings of Lili, she was most famous for her lesbian erotica art – which is why many wonder if she was, in fact, a lesbian herself. If not, she was most certainly a bisexual woman, since she supposedly had many affairs with other women while being married to Einar. She was therefore far from being a conventional wife who struggled to understand her husband’s transition into a woman. But none of this gets mentioned in the film; probably because of the fact that bisexuality is largely still considered a taboo in Hollywood studio films.

tumblr_nyyk79Odaj1s8esgpo1_1280This is why The Danish Girl ends up being a very conventional love story where Gerda, somewhat supportive, but unable to fully understand her husband’s struggle, gets turned into a martyr who sacrifices her marriage for the sake of her husband’s happiness. While watching the film, you’ll find yourself more sympathetic towards Gerda than Lili who’s slowly coming to terms with her gender and her newly established identity. To make a film about a transgendered person where your main sympathy goes to everyone else but that transsexual person perfectly demonstrates where the true agenda of this film lies, because it’s certainly not in representing LGBT community. When the credits finally rolled, I actually began to wonder whether the title The Danish Girl really meant Lili, because it sure seemed more like Gerda’s story at more than one occasion. Not to mention the fact that Lili often came across as an egoistical and downright selfish person who doesn’t care about anyone but herself. There was one particularly problematic scene where Gerda asked Lili if she could speak with her husband, which was a perfect moment to explain that Lili is, in fact, Einar (and vice versa); that they’re the same person, that they always were the same person. Instead, she only responded with: “No. Can I help, please?”, which came across as if she’s depriving her wife of speaking to her husband one more time. It’s awfully manipulative to portray her like that: this film was supposed to be about her inner struggle and not about the struggles of people around her. Especially when those struggles didn’t actually exist: Einar lived as Lili for more than 10 years before having a surgery, and in all this time, Gerda and her had a lovely, loving marriage. They lived together as two women for a long time before their marriage became annulled due to legal issues. After Lili had her first surgery (out of four; the last one in 1931 was fatal), she legally changed her name from Einar to Lili Elbe, and this made their marriage invalidate, since two women couldn’t be legally married at the time.

tumblr_nyyk79Odaj1s8esgpo8_1280Another problem that cannot remain unaddressed was how Einar first acknowledged that she actually identifies as a woman. When one of Gerda’s models cancelled her appointment, Einar came to pose in her place – and it’s in that exact moment, when he puts on women stockings and a dress, that he (or rather, she) discovers her true gender identity (which is, of course, misleading – she was born as a woman, and has therefore always identified as a woman, even though everyone else around her identified her as a man. Did the film tried to suggest that if she wouldn’t try those clothes on, she wouldn’t realize that she was born in the wrong body?). It’s not long before she starts touching her silk dress in a ridiculously erotic way, as if she didn’t just realized that she feels much more herself when dressed like a woman, but as if the dress actually turned her on. And at least the next half of the film continues in this fashion; as if her dressing up in women’s clothes would be more of a roleplay between Gerda and herself, and not about her actually being a woman born inside of a man’s body. That is until she starts to suffer from monthly nosebleeds and stomach cramps. If she’s actually experiencing something as close to a menstrual cycle as a “man” can get, then maybe there really is something more to her dressing up as a woman? Because only after that the film slowly begins to explore the possibility that she actually is a woman and always was a woman: but by that time it is already too late, the damage has already been done.

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Just as Jenny’s Wedding earlier this year, this film’s representation of homosexuality and transsexuality feels disappointingly conservative and outdated, not to mention the fact that a transgendered role once again isn’t played by an actual trans actor. It’s not more than two years since Jared Leto’s Oscar-winning role in Dallas Buyers Club opened up a discourse about the lack of trans people on screen – and yet here we are again, watching Eddie Redmayne dressing up and trying to (somewhat unsuccessfully) come across as Lili Elbe, when I am sure that there’s more than enough talented trans actresses in Hollywood that would be perfect for the role. It’s also somewhat infuriating to see that Redmayne’s performance got him another Oscar nomination. While I liked his performance in The Theory of Everything, his choice of playing Lili in the same physical way as Stephen Hawking felt wrong to me. Everything he did – from his hand gestures and smiles, to his excessive blinking with the eyes, seemed choreographed and forced. There was nothing natural about it; in every scene he looked like he’s posing for a portrait, but the most annoying thing was probably the way he batted with his eyelashes as if that’s the characteristic that makes you look the most feminine version of yourself.

The Danish Girl doesn’t even come close to representing trans community; nor does it tries to understand it. All that this film actually manages to do is showing us how trans people are perceived by cisgendered, heterosexual majority. And this is, for me, an unforgivable misrepresentation of a minority that deserved something much better.

The Basics:
Directed by: Tom Hooper
Written by: Lucinda Coxon (based on a novel by David Ebershoff)
Starring: Eddie Redmayne, Alicia Vikander, Amber Heard, Ben Whishaw
Running Time: 119 minutes
Year: 2015
Rating: 5

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12 thoughts on “The Danish Girl (2015): a dissapointing and conservative portrayal of transsexuality”

  1. “The Danish Girl doesn’t come even close to representing trans community; nor does it tries to understand it. All that this film actually manages to do is showing us how trans people are perceived by cisgendered, heterosexual majority. And this is, for me, an unforgivable misrepresentation of a minority that deserved something much better.”

    That is an absolutely perfect summation of it. Close-minded, dull, and in no way the progressive film it should be. I’ll be sticking to things like Tangerine instead.

    Also, Eddie Redmayne’s Oscar nomination is unsurprising but infuriating.

  2. Great review 🙂 Some great points. I think I’ll skip this one. A recommendation: ’52 Tuesdays’ is an Aussie film where a mother wants to get a sex change, or whatever the right phrase is, and her 16 year old daughter has to deal with it. Great movie, I think you’d like it. It certainly is nothing like what you’ve described above

    1. Thanks, Jordan! And trust me, you’ll be doing yourself a favour if you decide to skip it 😉 there’s so many good movies out there, it’s not worth spending your time watching bad ones.

      Haha, I must say, you know me well; I watched 52 Tuesdays about a month ago and I LOVED IT. It was amazing, really – Australian cinema keeps surprising and impressing me! And it had a woman director which was another plus in my book. 🙂

      Both 52 Tuesdays and Tangerine were fantastic films – they were insightful and thoughtful and they approached the subject of transsexuality with unbelievable care. The Danish Girl, sadly, failed at all of this; and it’s sad that this is a film that got all the public recognition and awards nominations, while the other two remain completely unknown to the wider audience.

      1. Tis sad, but alas, that is the awards season for ya. I can’t stand them all to be honest, I count down the days til they are over so everyone can start talking about movies proper again, instead of who should have won what award etc. That’s just me though

        That’s great that you liked 52 Tuesdays! I thought you might like that one. I need to see Tangerine, I’ve read only good things. That was the one only shot on i-phones wasn’t it?

      2. Haha, yeah, I totally agree with you. I kind of can’t wait for the awards season to be over, too… 🙂

        Tangerine’s the one shot on iPhones, yes! It’s a really impressive movie, and performances are great too. I hope you soon get to see it, it was one of my favourites from last year. 🙂

      3. I’ll have to watch Tangerine, it sounds interesting from what I have read.

        We seem to be in the minority when it comes to the Awards ceremonies hehe ;P

      4. Hehe, yeah, I guess so. I’m actually always interested in other awards that are part of film festivals – Berlin, Venice, Rotterdam, Sarajevo etc. But when it comes to Golden Globes and Oscars… the whole thing just makes me sick, to be honest. Because it’s not so much about celebrating good cinema, acting skills or whatever… it’s mostly just about celebrating certain studios and producers. And certain ideology, of course.

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