Thursday, December 17, 2015

"The Danish Girl": Sympathy Masquerading as Empathy

Now In Theaters
I think I need to start this review with the disclaimer that The Danish Girl could have been a much worse film than it ended up being.  I’ve been nervous about the production of this film ever since I found out that director Tom Hooper, a director notorious for making films geared specifically to pander to award season sensibilities, had cast Eddie Redmayne to star as the titular transgender woman Lili Elbe, immediately after Redmayne gained fame and infamy for his problematic portrayal of Steven Hawking in last year’s The Theory of Everything.  This raised warning bells that the film was going to be yet another vehicle designed for Redmayne to pull in nominations for portraying a disadvantaged group that would have been better served by having their own voices represented.  And that’s largely what has happened here, though I can’t really fault the film for what appear to be noble intentions in portraying the transgender experience, despite how misguided and unfortunate the portrayal turned out to be.

For those unfamiliar with the life of Lili Elbe, she was a transgender woman, formerly known as famous painter Einar Wegener, who came out in the 1920s.  As portrayed in the film, what started as a flirtatious game with her wife (portrayed with a surprising degree of complexity by Alicia Vikander) turned into a desire to dress as a woman in public and ultimately led to a discovery of transgender identity that resulted in her being one of the first to receive gender reaffirming surgery.  The film tries to treat Lili’s transition with some degree of respect, but certain pauses in dialogue feel primed at Lili’s expense, perhaps unconsciously but still present all the same as supported by the laughter of those who also attended the screening.

As for the film’s portrayal of transgender identity, it is seemingly well-intentioned but viewed through the skewed perspective of the heterosexual male gaze.  The camera lingers on the female form, fetishizing femininity through “Einar’s” eyes and carrying the unsettling implication that she embraces femininity out of an overt attraction to it, not out of any sort of self-discovery.  This is further evidenced by the camera never choosing to fetishize Lili in the same way; despite the film’s supposedly progressive attitude, it never deigns to treat Lili as a woman in her own right.

She is constantly seen as a fraudulent woman, which isn’t necessarily unrealistic as to how transgender women are treated, but the film does not go to enough lengths to establish that Lili is worthy of equal dignity to cisgender women.  The possibility that Lili suffers from mental illness is perpetually brought up throughout the film, with Lili seeing multiple doctors who all try to convince her of her insanity.  Again, not unrealistic, but Lili herself refers to “Einar” as a separate identity; considering that much of the presumably cisgender audience for this film is going to be largely ignorant of the realities of transgender experience, the conflation with mental illness is going to further spread harmful misconceptions.  This is also why Redmayne is a terrible choice to portray Lili, and I don’t mean because he is a cisgender man (which, despite being problematic, makes a certain amount of sense for how this story was told).  Redmayne is most certainly a gifted mimic, able to adopt the mannerisms and affectations of others in a purely physical sense, but as an actor he is never able to create a character beyond his bland British charm.  He was never convincing as Lili; he was Eddie Redmayne in a dress, just as he was only Eddie Redmayne in a wheelchair a year ago.

I can’t fault The Danish Girl for not being a film sympathetic to transgender issues.  However, it is by no means empathetic to those issues, by which I mean it is painfully obvious that its creation was not informed by living transgender people sharing their experiences.  This is a film shackled by the misconceptions of its director, its writing team, and its cast, and those misconceptions will be spread through the uninformed cisgender audiences who may come away from the film with sympathy for transgender people, but lack the understanding to affect change in any meaningful way.

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