The Danish Girl: Not Just another love story

'The Danish Girl' is an exquisitely made, even if a tad bloodless, pseudo-biography of a real life artist couple

Updated - September 23, 2016 12:43 am IST

Published - January 14, 2016 05:26 pm IST

Eddie Redmayne as Lili Elbe, in Tom Hooperís "The Danish Girl.

Eddie Redmayne as Lili Elbe, in Tom Hooperís "The Danish Girl.

In a scene in The Danish Girl , we see Einar Wegener (played by Eddie Redmayne) visiting a Parisian brothel. A woman trapped inside the body of a man, he watches a hooker strip inside a glass window. She is unperturbed by his presence until she realises he is actually emulating her, trying to pick up the essential female seduction techniques: the playing with the hair, the subtle biting of lips and the nervous hand gestures. The sex worker pauses for a moment. She almost covers herself. She’s okay with lecherous men watching her. But suddenly, when confronted with the alien gaze of a woman in a man’s body, she feels uncomfortable. This is, after all, the 1920s: a time when there is hardly any public precedence for transgenders, forget debates on its legitimacy.

But what the sex worker does next, in a way, forms the core of the film. She goes back to seduction mode, but with a temperamental shift. Now, she is not seducing him but giving him a crash course on how to seduce men. There is a womanly kinship developed in that moment , an impulsive response with feminine sensitivity that a man, in her place, probably wouldn’t have been able to show. The scene mirrors the evolving relationship between Einar, who goes on to become Lili Elbe, and his wife, Gerda Wegener (Alicia Vikander).

Both are painters living in Copenhagen. Their love story, we are told at one of their art soirees, began when Einar spotted her sitting on the stairs of the University. By the end of the film, they don’t share the same romantic relationship, but the love has deepened. It’s just not the kind of love we have a definition for. The most intriguing aspect of The Danish Girl is that it is much more about that love story than it is about Lili’s road to self-discovery.

Art adds another layer to it – the film’s look is inspired by the works of the great painter Vilhelm Hammershoi, especially in the way it captures the low-key aesthetics of the Danish interiors of 1920s. In another film, we would have Einar’s art evolve as he comes to terms with his sexuality. But here, Einar, the celebrated landscape painter we meet at the beginning, gradually loses interest in art. The landscapes, we realise, were in fact, never reflective of its author.

Where Einar’s transformation realises itself, instead, is on Gerda’s canvasses. One day, when one of Gerda’s models is late, Einar fills in for her. The moment marks the birth of Lili, a female alter-ego that Einar realises is more real than himself. She also becomes Gerda’s favourite model that changes her art forever. It breaks new grounds in 1920s art, making her one of the first women painters who painted women freeing them from male gaze. British director Tom Hooper and his screenwriters David Ebershoff (also the author of the American novel of the same name) and Lucinda Coxon remain more loyal to history than the fiction it inspired.

As for the performances, Redmayne, yet again after his Oscar-winning portrayal of Stephen Hawing in The Theory of Everything , uses the frailness of his physicality to great effect. He has a beautiful face, a certain gender-fluidity that makes him quite the perfect choice for this role. Yet, he seems a little cold and distant. We don’t feel Lili’s frustration as much as, say, we had felt for Charlize Theron in Monster .

This, naturally, affects the film. Like Lili’s degrading health that makes her paler by the day, the film feels a little bloodless. That way, Vikander gets the more remarkable part of a woman who deeply misses her husband and yet remains rock-solid in her support for him embracing his sexuality. She plays an instrumental role in his sex- reassignment surgery, considered one of the first in Queer history.

The fact that Gerda invokes more sympathy in us than Lili says a lot about Vikander's performance.

Director: Tom Hooper

Cast: Eddie Redmayne, Alicia Vikander, Amber Herd, Matthias Schoenaerts

Genre: Biography

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