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. 

Monday, January 4, 2016

Safe Sex with the Tory Party

You'd already seen him a few times, at various house parties: he's a friend of Sarah, and Ivor, and the two Petes. He's sort of handsome, tall but doesn't seem it, is shy, has a smile that makes him seem immediately less attractive. You spoke to him once at, was it, that weird Thanksgiving party where no-one was American? Maybe. You made a joke about your host's tray of tit-shaped ice cubes, and he laughed.

Today you found yourselves out at a club together - you with colleagues, when post-work drinks became raucous and your boss shanghaied you into joining a hunt for further booze after closing time; he with a bunch of dead-looking people, on a stag do that he blushed to mention when you approached him at the bar.

"The music here is terrible," you said.

"Yes, it's awful, I want to die," he said.

"And have you seen those two white people with dreadlocks on the dance floor? Headbanging?"

"Oh god, don't," he said. "One of them was dancing near me just now and I think one of its hair bits touched my arm."

You talked together in a corner of the club for a bit. He touched you for emphasis once, and then again soon afterwards, this time not for emphasis. You and he had somehow moved closer, and he was leaning over you now. A song by Taylor Swift came on over the sound system.

"Fuck this shit, would you like to go somewhere else instead?" you said.

He smiled. "My place is nearby, if you'd like a nightcap."

You kissed outside the club, to make certain there was no misunderstanding, and because you felt like it. You kissed him again outside his house, as he was fumbling for his keys. You both laughed. You were on a good footing: your shared knowledge of what would soon be happening gave you a skittishness of gesture; your intimacy was laced with laughter, with glances darted at one another.

In his bedroom, a few minutes later, he says:

"Hi, I'm Michael by the way," and extends his right arm for a comically formal handshake. "It's just you haven't said my name all evening, and I thought you might be uncertain."

"Hi, Michael," you say. You don't say your own name back. You both laugh.

In bed later, you're kissing. The kissing is good, so you carry on with that for slightly longer perhaps than you usually do before moving on to other stuff. Then you move on to other stuff; this develops. He's slightly rougher of gesture now - pleasingly so - and his breathing has become heavier. He lifts your face up to him, kisses your neck, a little slurpingly, not entirely enjoyably but not horribly either. He's holding you to him, and is now stroking your backside with one hand. He is thrusting his groin against you, meaningfully. You grind back against his thrust to signify permission, approval.

"You want to...?" he asks.

"Sure!" you say.

You kiss again, hungrily.

"Safe, right?" he says.

"Yeah."

"OK, hang on one second."

He leaves you kneeling there, a little self-consciously. He stretches his whole body across the mattress, reaching into a little table on the other side of the bed. You take in his body as he rattles his hand around inside a drawer in the table.

"OK, here we are", he says finally, turning towards you while putting on a cardboard mask of George Osborne.

You stare at him, sitting there on his haunches - his chest a little hairy and not totally muscular; his erection straining towards you; his face an exact replica of the face of the Chancellor of the Exchequer. Weirdly, his hair aligns perfectly with George Osborne's hipster haircut, whose choppy fringe sits on the uppermost edge of the mask.

There is an aperture in the mask at mouth level, through which he has poked his lips, forcing them into a kind of duck's bill shape, a wet and roseate flapping thing which now says to you:

"Suck my dick?"

"I'm sorry?" you say, looking in undisguised horror now at that face which so closely resembles a freshly droned primary school. Everything in the unsmiling visage is gray. George Osborne's face regards you coldly, as if you were a thief caught in flagrante delicto making yourself a sandwich at the fridge while burgling his house.

George Osborne's face says again: "Go on, suck my dick a bit. Get me back in the mood. I got a bit distracted."

Your lover's voice is warm and gentle, unlike the voice of George Osborne, the chief strategist of the Conservative Party. But looking through the eye holes in the mask, you can only see the pupils of your lover's own eyes, not his green and twinkling irises. Here the blacks of his eyes are small, blending seamlessly into George Osborne's eyes, which are like two freeze-dried raisins lying at the bottom of a ravine.

"Sorry," you say, "it's just that you..."

"...look like George Osborne?" His penis is wilting a little now. He scratches under an armpit.

"Yeah. Sorry, it's putting me off."

"Yeah, but you know they're issuing everyone with these masks, right?" He shuffles on his knees towards you, and pensively strokes you between your legs.

"Yeah," you say, as a cold shudder courses all the way from your anus to your nape. "I read about it on BuzzFeed or something, that you could send off for a Gideon sex mask, and the Department for Health would mail you one?"

"Yeah." He pecks hopefully at your ear lobe with his puckered mouth shape. From the corner of your eye you can see George Osborne, with his painted eyebrow raised in apparent fury against you, breathing hotly near your neck.

"It's just... it's just I've never fucked anyone who looks exactly like George Osborne before."

"No-one has," he says, removing the mask at last. He sighs. "I suppose that's the point."

You snuggle up to him now, in relief, laying your head in his lap. He has put the mask down on the bed, whence it lifelessly considers you. You flip it over, so that the elastic-and-plain-cardboard face is now turned to you instead.

"I... sorry, I'm just not feeling it," you say.

"That's fine," he says. "Shall we say numbers to each other until we fall asleep?"

"OK," you say, as you lie down with him, nestling your head on his shoulder. "Nineteen."

"Forty-seven thousand," he says.

"Two billion."

"Minus one point two."

"Sixty-seven percent"

"Ninety-two thousand five hundred and nine"

You yawn. Your eyes are closing. "A trillion," you say.

He yawns too, and kisses your forehead. "Twelve hundred," he says, and turns off his bedside light.