Vulpes Libris

A collective of bibliophiles talking about books. Book Fox (vulpes libris): small bibliovorous mammal of overactive imagination and uncommonly large bookshop expenses. Habitat: anywhere the rustle of pages can be heard.

The Danish Girl (film)

May contain spoilers.

There are movies which have a particular look to them, drenched in color, such as the greenish grey of The Libertine or the golden hues of The English Patient, reflecting the desert colors and worth of memories. Other movies look like paintings come to life, like Barry Lyndon and now, The Danish Girl. While most people focused on the subject matter, I was stunned by the look of the film, one of the most beautiful I’ve ever seen. With that bright clear light of a sunny winter’s day, The Danish Girl is lit like a Vermeer painting. Add to that the settings, staircases with Art Deco bannisters, rococo corners of Paris buildings, walls of rich colors and you have backgrounds that could compete with the actors to steal the scenes.
The story is about Einar Wegener(Eddie Redmayne), one of the first people to undergo gender reassignment surgery, back in the late 1920’s and early ‘30’s in Europe. Wegener was a very successful landscape painter married to Gerda, a portrait painter. Einar gradually transforms into Lili Elbe and eventually undergoes the dangerous operations to physically become a woman as well. As difficult as that process is nowadays, one can imagine how much harder it was then, not only medically, but culturally with the rigid roles of the genders.
At the beginning of the film,their marriage is full of intimacy. In fact, it continues the stereotypical artist fantasy of days filled with nothing but painting and sex, with an occasional opening night party at a gallery; a lifestyle most working artists wouldn’t recognize. Gerda(Alicia Vikander) is the near perfect spouse, a strong, independent woman being supportive, yes, but also, as Lili emerges, emotionally adrift as she realizes she’s losing her husband. It’s a fine tuned performance, one that could have easily gone over the top, but didn’t.
My sister said that one of the things she liked about the film was the way it showed how difficult such a transformation is, both physically and mentally. In that day and age, with higher risks, the toll on the human body from that type of surgery, when doctors barely knew how to go about it, must have taken tremendous courage to undergo. And Lili didn’t want just the appearance of a woman, but to be able to give birth, what was then considered the ultimate act of womanhood. The attempt to provide a womb was one of her last surgeries and ultimately the one which caused her death from complications afterwards.
As Lili became more feminine, she wanted to work in a department store, rather than painting, even though Gerda was a woman and also a successful painter. I was troubled by this abandonment of painting, as I am by any discarding of talent. Since Einar painted variations of the same landscape repeatedly, a place where he had connected deeply with a childhood friend, I understood that perhaps as Lili, the longing had been fulfilled in another way, but as an artist myself, it bothered me.
The film altered a few things from their real lives, giving Gerda a happier ending and making composite characters to fill out certain storylines. It’s based on a novel by David Ebershoff, which I tried to read before the film was out, but found the narrative too restless. One of the alterations was a relationship which provided the final scene, which was perfect in it’s symbolism, but left me in tears. Yes, Lili was a pioneer, but she was also a person, a very brave person who was just trying to become herself.

Focus Features/Universal Pictures 2015 119 minutes

2 comments on “The Danish Girl (film)

  1. noelleg44
    March 8, 2017

    Thank you for this frank and detailed review! The psychological, physical, and physiological challenges presented by transitioning is one reason why suicide is so high in transgenders and also why Johns Hopkins terminated their program. It is not something to be considered lightly. Luckily gender dysphoria is fairly rare:
    0.005-0.014% for adult natal males and 0.002-0.003% for adult natal females.

  2. loveonastick
    March 9, 2017

    Suicide in transgender people is so high because of the discrimination they face. If affirmed and supported suicide rates are the same as mentally well cis-gender individuals.

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  • (The header image is from Aesop's Fables, illustrated by Francis Barlow (1666), and appears courtesy of the Digital and Multimedia Center at the Michigan State University Libraries.)
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