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Film Review: The Danish Girl (2015)

Eddie Redmayne and Alicia Vikander star in and Tom Hooper directs The Danish Girl, which loosely retells the real-life story of Einar Wegener/Lili Elbe, one of the first people to undergo sex reassignment surgery back in the 1920s. At the beginning of the film, Einar (Redmayne) and Gerda Wegener (Vikander) are a young and attractive couple living in Copenhagen as successful landscape and portrait painters, respectively. When Gerda asks Einar one day to take the place of an absent model for one of her portraits, the posturing and beautiful, delicate textiles awaken a secret part of Einar and ignites his transition into shy, sweet (but ultimately selfish) Lili. Gerda lovingly supports her husband’s identity change as they seek help from friends and doctors. Amber Heard, Matthias Schoenaerts, and Sebastian Koch play supporting roles.

Redmayne and Vikander give expectedly exquisite performances, navigating through the Wegeners’ complicated romance with astounding and equally matched talent. The costuming and set design are also breathtaking, bringing to life the understated yet glamourous Art Deco/Nouveau era of Western Europe in the 1920s. The two leads’ wardrobe reflects the film’s pivotal transition as Einar begins to change into Lili—effectively becoming Gerda’s muse—and Gerda’s professional success leads them to relocate to Paris. First seen in simply tailored blue suits and dresses, Einar and Gerda are later seen in gold-toned silks and furs as their lives change. Hooper also paints the Wegeners’ airy Danish apartment in shades of grey and blue, evoking a sparse but elegant lifestyle that transforms into a warm, bohemian nest when the couple moves to Paris.

The Danish Girl uses reflections, portraiture, and the gazes of characters to convey related ideas about identity, performance, and gender roles. Many times, Einar/Lili is seen through mirrors or darkened windows, the reflection symbolizing his other self, just out of physical reach, or sometimes posing as a question of reality. (This visual motif draws on Jacques Lacan’s mirror stage and other psychoanalytic theories regarding the “self” that would really require an expert to unpack.) Gerda also paints and draws Einar/Lili, making her husband more beautiful and idealized on canvas and paper than in the flesh. Subjected to the artist’s gaze, Lili says she feels stronger because Gerda portrays her as such. The gaze is a powerful concept in this film, and just about all films in general. Cinema itself is regularly encoded with the male gaze and this well-known topic is examined in The Danish Girl in intriguing ways. Early on in the film, a man sits for his portrait to be painted by Gerda while she discusses the female gaze and how rarely men are subjected to it. When Einar publically embodies Lili for the first time, he is made uncomfortably aware of the looks he receives from men as they look appreciatively at him, not realizing that they are looking at a man. One fascinating scene involves Einar observing a woman through a peep show, not for sexual pleasure but to mimic her seductive and feminine gestures. The camera captures his reflection in the window while also showing Einar and the woman as he literally mirrors her performance, trying to stay in touch with his female identity. Yet, the scene also asks what part of femininity (or masculinity, in any case) is performance and what part is real?

Although The Danish Girl is not historically accurate, the first-rate acting, high production value, and interesting themes explored make it an engaging watch.

Rating: 4 out of 5 yellow silk scarves

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