The Danish Girl depicts the lives and relationship between artist Gerda Gottlieb and her long-time model and companion, Lili Elbe. Elbe, who is best known as one of the first documented cases of gender dysphoria, was the first transperson to have undergone sexual reassignment surgery. Though the film is beautifully rendered against a luminous 1930s backdrop that is complimented by sharp costume design and the retention of solid performances from the leads (Eddie Redmayne and Alicia Vikander), it ultimately fails to present a penetrating depiction of Elbe’s journey, instead opting for palatability.
One thing about the The Danish Girl is clear: choosing Eddie Redmayne to portray the life of Lili Elbe was actually appropriate. It is also a more historically accurate decision than the choice of a modern transwoman would ever be. His characterization of Elbe is earnest, nuanced, and draped in good intention. Redmayne and Vikander are luminous and airy, if overwrought at times. This is even under the ham-fisted and unimaginative direction of Tom Hooper. Astute (albeit bland) casting choices aside, it’s hard to imagine The Danish Girl is about Lili Elbe at all. Gerda's reservations, loyalty, love, and displeasure take front and center in this film—this is the only narrative that is well executed, even though it transforms the entire piece into a patronizing retelling of a story too uncomfortable for mainstream audiences to synthesize. In fact, The Danish Girl does so very little to dramatize a historic gender journey that the pre-credit addendum commending Lili’s courage to live as herself presents as out of place. One can assume that Tom Hooper thought a short blurb about Lili’s bravery would erase any notion that The Danish Girl is merely an interesting love story and not a biography of a transgender pioneer. Hooper manages to erase Lili Elbe and he makes a fool of her while doing so, choosing to focus more on her clothing choices and neutered sexuality following her decision to transition as opposed to her womanhood.
Further, there is nothing comical about the life of Lili Elbe—so why did Hooper treat it so? Perhaps it was bad writing, as narrative choices turned Lili’s journey into a sideshow meant solely to drive a sexless love story along. The film depicts an active sex life between Lili and Gerda but later leaps into a painfully platonic depiction of a previously colorful relationship. Worse, there is the inclusion of shocker moments: at one point Lili reveals herself to childhood friend Hans (Matthias Schoenaerts) and the meeting is presented with a scandalous treatment. As the camera pans to the room behind the wall of her and Gerda’s apartment, Hans is unexpectedly introduced to Lili; the audience actually gasped. There is also an earlier shocker when Lili falls under the seductive spell of Henrik (Ben Wishaw) and is kissed by him—this is treated as a mistake on her part; encouraging the forever oppressive social narrative that transpeople should forgo romance because would be partners do not deserve to be “tricked”. Perhaps Tom Hooper sought to cement the viewer in Hans’s assumed state of shock or to illustrate Lili’s regret at having followed Henrik? If only so many aspects of the film didn’t color her gender journey with such tone-deaf handling, we’d be safe to assume so. Unfortunately, the entirety of the film is so incredibly light-hearted, sterilized, and focused on palatability and clothing it makes the life of Lili Elbe seem like nothing more than a game of dress up gone tragically wrong.
The narrative concerning Elbe’s gender journey is an outright disservice to both her and the journeys of transpeople after her. There wasn’t a single moment in this film that sought to promote and solidify her feminine spirit, a cowardly and unimaginative choice. At no point was I or anyone else in the audience (who laughed plenty throughout the initial phase of Lili’s gender journey) convinced we were watching a woman attempt to bloom in a morally stagnant society. In fact, all I walked away with was a feeling of having viewed the biography of a foolhardy and desperate crossdresser. Of course, Elbe’s diaries detail that she found much of her identity through clothing. However, fetishistic tempering of a “serious” film about a trans-pioneer is incredibly off-putting and trite. Nevermind the fact that Elbe achieved then what many transpeople today can only hope to accomplish because of draconian laws and reactionary cultural values: Elbe changed her name and gender through formal government channels (a feat even by today’s standards), received sexual reassignment surgery, and presented full-time as a woman—that alone is worthy of proper and probing narrative treatment.
The Danish Girl is merely a beautiful awards season vessel exploiting the current visibility of transpeople; it brings little to current conversations. Watch Tangerine instead.
Zaida J. is currently a Features Editor here at WUSSY and a self-described transgender loud mouth.