For those of you who may not know, The Danish Girl, a film by acclaimed director Tom Hooper (The King’s Speech and Les Misérables) was recently banned here in Malaysia. Based on the 2000 novel of the same name and loosely inspired by the real life experiences of two Danish artists – Lili Elbe and Gerda Wegener – the film is a story of a transgender woman finding her own identity. Obviously, this subject matter is not going through the country’s censorship board. I don’t find this news surprising, but what are we Malaysians missing out on?
(Note: I will be using female pronouns for when Lili actively identifies herself as a woman and male pronouns for when she is not. And there will be spoilers).
Lili Elbe, formerly Einar Wegener (played by Eddie Redmayne) was one of the first people to undergo sex reassignment surgery. The story goes that Einar first discovered his true gender when he was roped into crossdressing by his wife, Gerda Wegener (Alicia Vikander) for a portrait. Obviously you don’t develop a transgender identity overnight, and the movie plays it as one of the many stirrings of revelation for Einar. During these moments the camera takes its time exploring Einar’s body, a body he knows does not represent who he truly is. Soon, the adventurous Gerda suggests that Einar come to a ball as Lili, the persona they created for their new game. But the game quickly stops being fun, as Einar’s newfound mask brings to light a long unknown secret: he identifies as a woman.
What has this movie going for it is its visuals: The Danish Girl is a beautiful film. Fittingly enough, the artist couple live in settings that seem right out of a painting: from provincial Copenhagen to Paris to Lili’s hometown –(which often serves as the subject of her paintings). The movie treats us to lovely shots of echo-y apartments that highlight the elegance of the couple’s paintings. Ornate art and architecture are set against backdrops of wide city landscapes. There are also shots of hilltops that evoke a sense of wonder and tranquillity. This movie’s greatest strength is when the scenery enhances the plot, giving the film emotional depth. The wintry atmosphere sets up a melancholic tone that fits the movie’s narrative well. The music provides a good complement when it is most pronounced during the more emotionally-charged moments.
Sometimes the movie’s prettiness may obscure some important harsher realities of Lili’s story. The details of her surgery are glossed over, and her tragic death is almost immediately offset with a romantic denouement. To put it simply, it’s like looking at a person’s life encased in a picture frame. Pictures immortalise a person’s beautiful moments, but life also consists of ugly moments. There are parts where prejudice is depicted with cold precision, as well as an effective scene involving full-frontal male nudity (which is very rare). For the most part, it’s an idealised drama with a few aspects of realism but just polished enough to make the film palatable to a general audience.
One of the most fascinating themes of this movie is how Einar/Lili’s gender identity transforms. The process of transitioning for Einar does not just consist of a sex change but also covers “performing” the role of a woman. He mentions how he dislikes going to parties because he feels like he’s giving a “performance”. However in preparation for another party he goes to (dressed up as Lili), he needed to learn feminine body language and mannerisms. Gender is a performance. As Lili’s existence becomes more actualised she grows increasingly adamant with breaking from her previous life, completely abandoning her career as an artist. The feeling that there is a clear binary between male and female may be a reflection of the time period, when discourses about transgender identities was still at an infant stage.
The Male Gaze-y nature of this film also had me occasionally questioning the movie’s intentions. While I’m willing to accept that all those involved were well-intentioned, I still had to navigate my feelings around certain scenes and shots. The eroticism in this movie is usually done tastefully and with purpose, which is fine by me. Lili ends up being the erotic subject of Gerda’s paintings at some points in the movie which actually hugely contribute to future plot developments. Gerda’s paintings are now considered quite ahead of its time.
Media representation is a tricky business. Controversy surrounding representation of transgendered individuals in films and TV shows mainly crop up when the character is played by a cis-gender actor. The Danish Girl is no exception. Personally, I didn’t have too much of a problem with the movie’s casting choice of Eddie Redmayne. On the other hand, I do find the criticisms to be perfectly valid. Because there is so little representation in the first place, and because there is still a huge stigma that trans women are basically men in dresses, it makes sense for many to be peeved at trans roles being given to cis actors. As we progress even further, I would love to see more roles being given to actual trans actors.
Overall, this movie is an accomplished art piece. It has a lot of heart and while it is pretty, I believe that Lili’s story shouldn’t be viewed merely through rose-tinted lenses.
By Nabilah binti Abu Hassan Alshari
Source of images: FocusFeatures.com