Friday, February 14, 2020

Tom Hooper | The Danish Girl

i am entirely myself
by Douglas Messerli

Lucinda Coxon (screenplay, based on the novel by David Ebershoff), Tom Hooper (director) The Danish Girl / 2015

Reviewer Christy Lemire begins her Roger Ebert-site review of Tom Hooper’s The Danish Girl with the very questions I had about this work:

“Can a movie be impeccably made—well-cast and strongly acted, flawlessly appointed and gorgeously shot—yet still leave you cold? Can it do everything right technically without touching you emotionally? Can it offer a transporting experience without changing you one bit? Such is the conundrum with The Danish Girl.”

The film about one of the first Danish transgender sex changes is beautifully filmed by cinematographer Danny Cohen, beginning with a hedge of trees that Einar Wegener (Eddie Redmayne) paints again and again, as well as a lush score by Hollywood favorite, composer Alexandre Desplat.


    Yet the pedestrian director Hooper (The King’s Speech and Les Misérables) presents what might have been a very spicy tale with a distant admiration instead of the deep passion Wegener’s sexual transformation deserves. Instead of the real-life transgender film shot by Sean Baker, Tangerine, Hooper fetishizes Einar as he transforms into Lili a bit like the way the journalistic reportage did in their pieces on the hunk sportsman, Bruce Jenner (I remember when his seemingly outsized cock slapped against his running shorts—and shorts were precisely that in those days) long before he transformed into Caitlyn. The media simply presented it as a matter of fact that Jenner had always wanted to become a woman. But why? How does that happen? Certainly not overnight for either the successful painter Wegener or Jenner.
      Wegener, at least in this fictionalized version, was deeply in love with his lesser successful portrait-painter wife, Gerda (Alicia Viklander). The film suggests that they lasted 6 years, lopping off 20 years from their real marriage, the truth of which might have made for a much more compelling story. How many years did Lili remain, as she describes it, “inside” the body of Einar the artist?
      Even more important, the film seems to basically ignore Gerda’s own sexual conundrums. Although Hopper (through writer David Ebershoff's novel) does hint that she helped push the beautiful young artist into his feminine identity, first through a quick posing for her as their ballerina friend Ulla Poulsen (inexplicably named Ulla Paulson in this work) and later, in a somewhat kinky manner, enjoying the fact that her husband/lover observes her new nightgown and later wears it under his suit—with shades of Ed Wood—and, finally, encourages him to make a party appearance as his inner Lili, at the same her personal life, given her many paintings of lesbian women (not just her “in drag” husband) is totally ignored. Perhaps this long-term couple was not so heterosexual as this movie pretends.
     Moreover, both the original book and this cinematic version create imaginary relationships with characters named Hans (Matthias Schonaerts)—who first kissed Einar as a young man—and Henrik (Ben Whishaw) who, apparently knowingly falls in love and kisses Lili at the party, suggesting Einar might have been a homosexual simply confused about who he/she was. Certainly, several doctors he consults suggest as much as well, and are prepared to lock him up as a pervert or simple mental case.
      Many transgender males, however, do not have homosexual tendencies before their sexual shift (apparently Caitlyn Jenner being one of them). If it may be confusing for general audiences, love is simply like that. The lines of sex and love are not easily drawn.
      And, even more importantly, why not explore Gerda’s own later relationship with Fernando Porta or Lili’s connections to Claude Lejeune? Or, for that matter, why shoot a film about a “Danish woman” in Norway? Although both countries have had long relationships, in my experience they are very different.
       This, obviously, is truly a fiction, as film often is. And reasons for authorial and directorial choices in how to present characters are obviously complex and sometimes obscure. But, in this film, Hooper’s choices are at the heart of what makes us unable to comprehend and feel for its figures. The feminine in Redmayne’s performance, despite the beautiful somewhat feminine features of his own beautiful body, seem all to do here with a love of satin and silk, more an issue of cross-dressing rather than the radical sexual operations he undergoes—the removal of his penis and insertion of a vagina—that ultimately killed him. If you want to become a woman to dress up, put on a wig, and makeup, then, I might suggest, you don’t know what a woman is. Lili’s courage and sacrifices become utterly trivialized.
    And why would any director want Gerda to rush to Lili’s death bed, when the very outsiderness of her actions at that time, meant, as reality proclaimed, she could no longer join him, and was not there at the time of his death?
       There are times when truth is more interesting than fiction. As Lili herself says after her first operation: “I am entirely myself.” Too bad we didn’t truly get to know that self.

Los Angeles, February 14, 2020
Reprinted from World Cinema Review (February 2020).

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