Monday, February 8, 2016

Putting The Danish Girl Into Words

So already, The Danish Girl has been with me since I saw it last week, and oh, it's been making me feel so much: admiration, sorrow, compassion, and hope. 

Alicia Vikander, who plays Gerda, on UK television
Often classified as a "biopic," the film* tells the story of transgender Einar Wegener, who, after much painful searching and confusion, comes to understand and accept that she is Lili Elbe, a woman in man's body. She eventually chooses to undergo risky, innovative surgical procedures that, if successful, will allow her to live her life in a female body. It's the mid-1920s, and Lili is the first to undergo these surgical procedures.

But that's only part, even though it's a very important part, of what it's about.

It's about the relationship of art and truth.
It's about the importance of serendipity and imagination as ways of knowing one's true self
It's about the intuitive ways people who love and pay real attention to each other know each other.
It's about the challenge of understanding not just one's self, but one's place and role.
It's about the power of words and the lack of words.
It's about courage and optimism. 
It's about love and loyalty so strong that they can bend.

The film opens with disappointment. Einar and his wife Gerda, both artists, are disappointed again not have not to have conceived a child. Einar's excitement about having found the right color for the snow in his painting fails to excite Gerda, who can't understand why he continues to paint the same landscape. And Gerda is soon told that the portraits that she's been painting, while indicative of talent and promise, do not merit a gallery show.

But Gerda is a whirlwind whose drive and energy propel life forward, creating opportunity for truth and the change. One day, she enlists Einar to stand in when the female dancer who's been modeling for her is late, requiring him--I use the male pronoun here to reflect that Einar does not yet recognize that he is a woman--to don women's stockings and shoes. When Gerda's paintings of him in women's clothing earn her a gallery show, she's the one who suggests that he, usually reluctant to attend openings, accompany her in the guise of his visiting female cousin. In literally giving him a new way to view himself, Gerda helps Einar to encounter the truth.

So many possibilities and questions arise even from just this first part of the movie, and many of them can be categorized by using some of the "It's about . . ." statements above.

It's about the relationship of art and truth.**
  • Can Gerda NOT create vibrant art until she encounters and portrays--perhaps not in that order--Lili's truth?
  • Can/does art expose truth? create truth? when? To what degree does art see, recognize, and render truth--perhaps even before the artist herself does? 
  • Can art be alive and meaningful in the absence of truth? 
It's about the importance of serendipity and imagination as ways of knowing one's true self.
  • How important is the experience of presenting herself as a woman--an experience that she initially did not choose for herself--to Lili's realization that she is a woman?  
  • How would Lili have recognized that she was a woman without the "woman impersonation" experiences she had with Gerda's help?
It's about the intuitive ways people who love and pay real attention to each other know each other.
  • What does Gerda know about Lili concsciously and unconsciously from the very beginning of the movie? Does she always know it, or does she come to know it?
  • When Gerda encourages and assists Lili in dressing as a woman, to what degree is she acting on intuition?
  • To what degree do Lili and Gerda co-discover truth? co-construct truth?
It's about the challenge of understanding not just one's self, but one's place and role.
By the middle of the movie, my heart was breaking for both Gerda and Lili. Lili knew she wasn't the man Einar, but she didn't know "what" she was; she knew she couldn't live the life she had been leading, and didn't know what she dared expect or imagine in its stead. Gerda, meanwhile, no longer had a husband. In his stead was sweet, suffering, confused Lili who relied on her as much as Einar ever had.
It's about the power of words and the lack of words.
But how to talk about any of this--to oneself, let alone anyone else--when one has never heard the word "transgender"? When one can refer to no one who's had a comparable experience? When anything not heteronormative is likely to be branded as perversion? Desperate to understand herself and move forward with her life, Lili seeks the help of diagnosing specialists. Her quest often intensifies rather than alleviates her despair: after daring to glance at one doctor's notepad, she runs from the doctor's office, fearing institutionalization or imprisonment.
Interestingly, A Danish Girl was the third movie I'd seen since the new year in which characters or the people around them lacked language or were hesitant to use language that might describe who or what they were or were experiencing. In Spotlight, many sexually molested boys either chose or were encouraged not to call themselves victims--or survivors--of clergy sexual abuse. And in Carol, neither Carol not Therese classified herself as lesbian, bisexual, or anything else. I'm still trying to figure out the degree to which the absence of language reflected a lack of language, a denial of one's orientation, or a desire to elude classification, for the sake of one's family, one's future, or oneself. For Carol, there are no words, but there is also no child custody.
Eddie Redmayne as Lily
But unlike Lili, Carol is living in the wrong house with the wrong partner, not in the wrong body. How does one live in the wrong body? In a body that no longer feels like one's own body? Having played Stephen Hawking in The Theory of Everything, I suspect that Eddie Redmayne****, who plays Lili, might actually have an answer to this question. I keep thinking of a friend of mine who died of pancreatic cancer in the early 1990s. One day, placing my hand on her stomach so I could feel how hard it was because of underlying scar material, she said to me, "This isn't my body anymore."
But unlike Hawking and my friend, Lili isn't sick--she's just in the wrong body. And what words does she--anyone--have for that? For the loneliness and confusion that must accompany that?
It's about courage and optimism.
It's about love and loyalty so strong that they can bend.
But through an old friend who re-enters the life that she and Gerda share--and who comes to care deeply about both of them, Lili finds a doctor who does understand her situation, and who offers a combination of treatment and surgery--very risky surgery--that would enable her to become female biologically. Lili is willing to risk everything to have a female body: her goal is to become a mother. Nature made a mistake in assigning her a male body, and she feels entitled and compelled and brave enough to right the wrong and fully live the life of a woman.

Though Gerda and Lili can no longer be husband and wife, the bond between the two of them endures and supports them both. Though Gerda fears for Lili's health and recommends strongly against the second very dangerous surgery, she lovingly stands by Lili, understands what Lili seeks.
There's no battle of wills here, even though there are two very strong wills present; just the loyalty of two people who are walking a road that few others could conceive. So as I watched this movie, I was deeply moved by Lili's and Gerda's love and loyalty--so strong that not only did they survive the end of marriage and the changes and realizations that precipitated it, but they wrapped themselves around the next complex phases of the women's lives and continued to manifest themselves in both partners' words and actions. Many intact marriages and relationships don't stretch as well as this non-marriage did to accommodate lovingly the changing needs and lives of both partners.
"Gerda Wegener with Lili Elbe"*****
Yes, I was deeply touched by how Gerda and Lili loved and appreciated each other. So when I read somewhere that Gerda painted Lili throughout her career, I wasn't surprised. As the movie tells it, it all began with art. And as much as gender, and therefore body and mind, matters in this movie, I find myself thinking about spirit, too--spirit that connects people to each other. Could this journey have been anything less than transformative, life-bending, and consciousness-changing for Gerda, too? I doubt it. I know that when my friend placed my hand on her stomach so many years ago and shared what she was thinking, she was trusting me to be in that dark emotional place with her. I'm glad she chose not to be alone. I'm glad Lili had Gerda. And that transgender people today feel and are so much more empowered and supported to be who they are and must be. Without a doubt, love helps with all of the above. It helps with everything.

 * Screen shot: "Alicia Vikander: 'People Don't Eat in Hollywood' | E! Online UK (рус.суб.)." E! Online UK. Dec. 2015. Web. 08 Feb. 2016. <>.  
** Screen shot: Marchi, Marjorie. "Lili Elbe, A Primeira Cirurgia De Transgenitalização Do Mundo." Web log post. Astra Rio. Modelo Awesome Inc., 27 Apr. 2012. Web. 08 Feb. 2016. <>. 
*** Screen shot:  Wegener, Gerda. Model and Painting. 1920s. Pinterest (Leonard Fox Rare Books). Web. 8 Feb. 2016. <>.
**** Screen shot: snicks. "'Carol' And 'The Danish Girl" Score Major Academy Award Nominations.' NewNowNext. Viacom International Inc., 14 Jan. 2016. Web. 08 Feb. 2016.  
***** Screen shot: Wegener, Gerda. Gerda Wegener with Lili Elbe (was Einar Wegener). N.d. Pinterest (Xie Kitchen). Web. 8 Feb. 2016. <>.

No comments:

Post a Comment