The Danish Girl, Tom Hooper’s portrait of Jazz Age painters Gerda Wegener and her spouse, Einar, who butterflied into Lili Elbe via the first sexual-assignment surgery, is about gender and it isn’t. Like its subject, it’s fatally resolved to fit an ideal: the noble Oscar-bait biopic. If the script swapped transsexuality for heroin addiction, the beats of the story would scarcely change. There are secret jaunts, desperate doctor visits, pleas to change, and, finally, the slow, chilly acceptance that a partner simply can’t. Last year, star Eddie Redmayne won Best Actor playing Stephen Hawking in The Theory of Everything, and The Danish Girl sticks to the template. Reminiscing one night on their bed, now divided chastely in two by a sheet, Gerda (Alicia Vikander) smiles that it “wasn’t so long ago we were married, you and me.” “You and Einar,” corrects Lili (Redmayne). Gerda suppresses an eye-roll. How can a couple communicate when they can’t even agree on the words?
Redmayne plays Lili like a saint. Yet there’s sedition in the script and a showdown for the film’s soul as Vikander, the stronger actor of the two, forces us to witness how much Gerda loses to give Lili life. I’ve seen it twice and I still can’t figure out how Hooper feels about his characters. He and screenwriter Lucinda Coxon at first present this as a sort of horror story. At the start, Gerda and Einar are happy heterosexuals who hump like rabbits, the kind of couple that sickens their friends. One day, she begs him to pose for her in stockings and heels, and suddenly a woman, Lili, bursts from his heart like the monster from Alien, killing its host. To Gerda’s dismay, the two stop having sex and switch from lovers to girlfriends. We rarely see them kiss again. Hooper’s already sold us on their hot-blooded romance — the switch happens so fast we get whiplash. “We were playing a game!” says Gerda, and Lili’s emergence almost has the feel of one, like a planchette of lipstick accidentally awakened an Ouija board.
At first, Einar can’t articulate his confusion. This was, after all, a time before today’s vocabulary existed, causing doctors, the villains of the film, to diagnose him with every disease from a cancerous growth to schizophrenia. Instead, Redmayne translates Lili’s urges in lingering looks at silk dresses, which suggest that the film doesn’t understand her deeper needs. Neither, perhaps, does Lili, who doesn’t appear to be attracted to anything other than her own reflection. Her focus — and the film’s — is on the external: the fringed scarves, the elaborate gowns, the attention-getting red wig that overshadows Gerda’s mousy bob.
There’s an electric moment when Lili attends her first party and blushes as the bachelors look her up and down. She discovers the male gaze. As a female in the audience, I rediscovered it, too — after puberty, women get so used to eyeballs that we forget. Yet Lili skips over the sour bits of being female, like the condescending gallery patrons who cluck to Gerda, “Don’t you wish you could paint like your husband?” not knowing or caring that she’s the better artist. And then there’s Lili’s exaggerated, simpering body language, all head-ducking and languid caresses, which she learns studying a peep-show stripper — someone who is herself playacting a faux femininity for men.
It’s hard to tell how much of The Danish Girl is an oversimplification — or, more interestingly, a rebuke of being “womanly.” Take Caitlyn Jenner, who irritated feminists by announcing herself with a lingerie shoot. Hadn’t NOW spent decades telling women they didn’t have to dress like Playboy Bunnies? The Danish Girl is being pitched as the story of a brave pioneer — it even uses those words in its concluding title cards — but I suspect Hooper is quietly cross-examining Lili’s quest. He surrounds her with cities full of bold, aggressive, loud, strong women, from Ulla the outrageous ballet dancer (Amber Heard) to the brusque fishmongers at the market, yet Lili herself acts more retrograde than every other female in the film. She quits art, obsesses over her weight, and dreams of being a housewife. “I want to be a woman, not a painter,” she sighs. Supportive Gerda finally snaps, “Well, some people have been known to do both.”
With Redmayne reduced to poses and smiles, Vikander wrests the movie away to show us how a truly modern woman behaves. As a portrait artist, she commands her male subjects to “yield”; as a lover, she’s eager to make the first move — she even asked Einar out on their first date. Later, when her paintings of Lili are a hit, Gerda dedicates herself to her career, and their trajectories as homemaker and artist invert. Still, perversely, we can’t help noticing that their marriage becomes increasingly hierarchical — practically patriarchal — with Lili forcing Gerda to submit to her terms. Gerda is ditched at dinners, abandoned at her own art shows, drained of emotional support, and thrust into celibacy. No matter what her heart, or the empathetic score, might insist, Lili can still act like a dick.
The Danish Girl is a prism with three sides. It’s possible to watch it as an earnest biopic and walk away hailing Lili as a tragic trailblazer. That’s how the epilogue sells it, dismissing Gerda’s life with the mere note that she “kept painting Lili.” It’s also possible to see it through Gerda’s eyes — she, too, could be the Danish girl of the title — and believe that Hooper is instead hailing a wife who stood by her man even when he was cruel, and even when man was no longer the noun. Seen this way, it’s an ode to her selfless love. Einar cheats and blames it on Lili. Gerda struggles to remain faithful — and to prove her resolve, David Ebershoff, the novelist whose book the film is based on, invented hunky art dealer Hans Axgil (Matthias Schoenaerts), who offers Gerda strength and sexual approval, only to be rejected as she scurries to her husband’s bedside.
But the third subcurrent undermines the whole film: None of it is true. In reality, Gerda wasn’t a lonely wife. She was a bisexual who made her name inking erotic sketches of women devouring each other on chaises longues and, by all accounts, got a thrill out of date nights with Lili. Here, she soothes Lili when her latest surgery fails — naively, the doctors hoped she could give birth with an implanted uterus. Actually, by then Gerda was divorced and living in Morocco with her second husband, an Italian diplomat. Gerda wasn’t a victim. The choice to make her one is the great mystery of the script: Why does The Danish Girl pretend to cheer Lili’s courage while changing the facts to make her seem selfish?
If The Danish Girl dared to critique its main characters, it’d be brave. If it had celebrated a modern marriage that worked for 26 years — much longer and stranger than the film lets on — it’d be truly pioneering. Real life is full of kinks, mistakes, and selfish behavior. Biopics, however, are made of formulaic virtue.
The Danish Girl
Directed by Tom Hooper
Opens November 27, AMC Loews Lincoln Square and Regal Union Square
Directed by Tom Hooper. Written by Lucinda Coxon. Based on the novel by David Ebershoff. Starring Eddie Redmayne, Alicia Vikander, Ben Whishaw, Sebastian Koch, Amber Heard, and Matthias Schoenaerts.