Wednesday, January 6, 2016

In Defence of The Danish Girl, A Medium Film

On Twitter and in private conversations I have stated that while The Danish Girl is a completely medium film, I nevertheless recommend seeing it, or rather don't recommend avoiding it, because I think it does some interesting things. People whom I have said this to have then gone on to see the film and found it dull. It is! Let me explain what I think those interesting things are.

The complaint I have heard most often, about the film and about Eddie Redmayne's performance as Lili, is that it is artificial, giving us no sense of Lili's interiority. The critic Simon Price complained that the film suggests "that trans people are born from the outside in, not from the inside out". This could be a valid criticism (although the film does take pains to tie Lili's trans identity in with something within her from childhood) but The Danish Girl isn't about trans people. It's about one person, Lili Elbe, based on her diaries. Elbe would have had no precedents for her experience; no knowledge of trans culture; was, as the film shows, told that she was insane and perverted for pursuing her own identity. A bathetic aspect of the film is that while Einar Wegener was a successful artist, as Lili she rejected art entirely and was content being a shop girl. So much for interiority! 

What the film has to work with, it shows well: how in order to become herself, Lili modelled her gesture and her public performance of herself, on others. How she appreciated being contemplated. How she needed to appear as herself in society, needed to be herself in public. Redmayne has been criticised for a superficial performance, relying on fluttering hand gestures and Princess Diana eyes, but who is to say what models of behaviour or gender performance the real Lili Elbe would have had? It seems perfectly plausible to me that some of Lili's mannerisms would have been nervous, overly rehearsed; have 'rung false'. As a cis male I do not know about trans people's efforts to 'pass', whether trans women nowadays study cis women for gestures, reactions, body language; but I would hazard a guess that in a society totally divided along gender lines, as Lili's was, she would have found herself observing her environment for ways to enact her interior persona. 

As a queer man, I respond to the sense the film gives of the experience of coming out: the way one can have an awakening event (in Lili's case, being asked to wear a dress by her wife, which occasions an overwhelming desire in her) that triggers a process; the way different excitements and stimulations sustain you through the process; the way you grow in confidence and respond with astonishment to the truth of the character that is emerging from within; the way being yourself in public is necessary. All of this requires external unlocking. It cannot come from within, or not only. Lili never attains the final liberty that this process now traditionally ends with, but I think the film shows the rest very well. 

One of the things film does best as a medium is explore mimesis, and the act of looking. While The Danish Girl's visual composition is academic, not to say banal, it does still afford Lili her own gaze. In one of the film's best scenes, Lili visits a sex shop in Paris, at a point when her marriage is going through a difficult period. There, she pays a woman to put on a show for her - but gently and tenderly, the film shows how she is here merely to study this other woman, to learn from her sexuality, to adopt her movements as her own. Elsewhere, we experience the world as Lili may have seen it: the film is flat and placid, but it does pick out fabrics and colours, from dresses backstage at a ballet school to the scarves and frocks that Lili picks out for herself, touchingly similar to her wife's. By doing this the film almost arrives at the tactile experience it should fully be in order to serve Lili's view of the world. 

A final word on the film's best aspect. In a movie that is often so trite, with hackneyed writing and a stiff gaze, something happens that is fully queer. This is down to Eddie Redmayne's complicity in being objectified, in the - watch out, I'm going to say it - brave way he luxuriates in his beauty. At a time when The Revenant is coming out on the tail of a PR campaign that centres on Leonardo DiCaprio's virility, it is thrilling and completely new in cinema that a man has surrendered his masculinity entirely, and accepted to be observed, adored, regarded in a feminine way, absent of aggression. Marlon Brando was complicit in his own objectification in A Streetcar Named Desire, but the film posits him as a macho figure, an aggressor: Redmayne on the contrary is giving over to our gaze, letting us shape him in a sense - and something erotic emanates from this, despite the staid trappings of the movie surrounding him. So while some may find his performance simpering, I think we should also consider that he has worked to overturn our conception of him as a man, works on our expectations of male performance. 

So, yes, The Danish Girl is drab. Its final scenes are ridiculous. But I do not unrecommend it. 


Cid said...

The Danish Girl is not based on Lili Elbe's diaries, it is based on a fictional book with the same name. 99% of what we've seen in the film is fiction. This is a false biopic.

Anonymous said...

tbf, (hello, ancient article) the best thing to come out of the film was Alicia Vikander's performance (in a clearly leading role) ... stunning depth.