Sunday, January 31, 2016

"The Danish Girl"

 4 / 5 

Like its title character at a party, The Danish Girl doesn't know how to enter or exit gracefully, stumbling on the way in and devolving into histrionics on her way out, and even thought the modest uncertainty that gives way to maudlin theatricality seems entirely appropriate for the character, the tonal shifts leave the film just shy of where it wants to be.

Where it wants to be is clearly telegraphed in those final moments, when Eddie Redmayne, playing a woman named Lili Elbe who was previously a man named Einar Wagener, wakes up in a hospital and asks to be wheeled into the garden.  If you've seen a movie made in the past, oh, 70 years or so, you know Lily/Einar/Eddie isn't coming back from that garden, and the scenes might as well have super-imposed arrows pointing to Redmayne flashing the words, "For your consideration! Best Actor!"

The Danish Girl does feel almost that desperate by its end, which is a genuine shame, because everything that has led up to it has been subtle, thoughtful and unexpectedly involving.  It's likely that most audiences who watch The Danish Girl will neither be Danish nor transsexuals nor even -- despite all of the recent furor over the decision by Bruce Jenner to become Caitlyn Jenner -- particularly aware of or comfortable with the emotional state of a man who believes himself to have been born the wrong gender.

As the film begins, Einar Wegener is a Danish artist living with his talented, free-spirit wife Gerda (Alicia Vikander) in their artists studio in 1920s Copenhagen.  She paints portraits, he paints landscapes.  They love each other quite a lot, and work together frequently.  One morning, a model doesn't show up and Gerda can't paint.  Einar offers to help be her stand-in, and slides his legs into women's stockings, fits his foot into a ballet slipper, and feels the rustle of the ballgown he places over himself.  He blushes.  He should not find this arousing, but he does.

Yet Einar knows he is not a transsexual, not a man who likes to wear women's clothes.  The Danish Girl hints quite broadly that Einar isn't the only one who knows of his true internal identity -- Gerda seems utterly enchanted by the idea her husband could become a woman.  More than that, a woman who men find attractive.  Einar and Gerda create an identity for Einar's alter-ego: Lily, the shy cousin of Einar, visiting from the countryside.

But as soon as they spend time in public with Einar's new identity by attending a local artists' ball, they both realize it is not a game.  Immediately, Lili attracts the attention of men at the dance.  She is flattered, but she is also confused.  Einar knows he is not a homosexual -- he is not attracted to men as a man.  But when he becomes Lily, he not only gains a surprised suitor, but the man appears to have guessed Lily's secrets -- and doesn't mind at all.  It sets Einar's head spinning, not to mention Gerdas.  They, after all, remain husband and wife -- but doesn't a husband get a secret life?  Don't we all?  Do the vows of honoring and obeying matter if the spouse says the best way to honor and obey is to dress as a woman and arouse the interest of men?

The Danish Girl is at its best when it delves into the confusions and secrets of Einar and Gerda.  They are a fascinating couple, played with equally fascinating depth by Redmayne and, especially, Vikander.  Watching them try to negotiate the rules that might allow their deeper love to remain intact feels both modern and urgent -- and The Danish Girl is at its best when its period setting fades into the background and you wonder how much of the story is at least equally, if not more, relevant to today?

Einar and Gerda love each other.  That is never in doubt.  And Lily turns to Gerda as her only source of strength in a confusing and upsetting world.  Those who meet Lily, like Einar's old childhood friend Hans (Matthias Schoenaerts) may not accept her immediately, but they have a remarkably easy time accepting Einar's transition, understanding that this is what he wants to become.

Redmayne negotiates tricky territory carefully, with a quiet confidence and loveliness that make it easier, in a way, to accept Lily than the strangely aloof Einar.  Redmayne plays Lily as the character of truth in the story -- though she's also stunted in her awareness of the world; she has only ever experienced it from a man's perspective.

Outdoing even Redmayne is Vikander, who earlier in 2015 played the robot in Ex Machina.  She's a full-blooded human in this one, tender and caring, patient yet angry for not understanding exactly what Einar is proposing to do.  Vikander finds a way to make the sort of grief she's experiencing accessible and comprehensible.

Visually, The Danish Girl is a minor masterpiece; it's one of the movies that you wish you could frame and project in the house; every moment of it has a beautiful image at its core.  It's a ravishing beauty of a film

It's just that when the emotional stuff ends, when the discussion of the hows, whys and what-it-means-to-mes have all been had, the movie has little to do but show Einar's recovery from his surgery (which is described in sufficient enough detail to be concerning, I suppose, to younger children, older adults or strong conservatives).  Despite being two hours long, I wanted to see more, wanted to know how Lily gets along in day-to-day life, and what kind of relationship she has with the man who once chased her when she was a closeted homosexual.  The movie is filled with intriguing possibilities, but it sticks mainly to the story at hand.  It's a good story.  A little sappy in the end, but a good story nonetheless.

The Danish Girl starts by taking an idea that has fueled comedies from Victor/Victoria to Bosom Buddies, then explains why transgenderism is nothing like that at all and how we've gotten it all wrong, why this is -- or, at least, was -- an anguished way to lead a life, and why it's better to risk death than live another day without liberty.

In that, it's odd how much it turns itself into a moving and captivating story even the conservatives could get behind.  Watching The Danish Girl is probably the last thing a conservative would ever think to do -- but they might be moved, as I was, to discover a real person is at the heart of the gender switch, a person who has hurt and ached and loved all of his/her life, and is ready to find out, so many years after it should have begun, what life can really be like.

Viewed Jan. 30, 2015 -- DVD

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