Surface Tension: Conflict and Acceptance in The Danish Girl


It’s a classic scenario: boy meets girl, boy becomes girl, girl meets boy, girl undergoes surgery to have her testicles removed. Who said romance is dead? It’s the stuff of a thousand screwball comedies.

But we didn’t come here to laugh, did we? We came to see a man in a dress and we want what we came to see! What could be more serious than that?

What is your response when you see Eddie Redmayne posing like that, as Lili, on the cover of the new home release of The Danish Girl? All lipstick and flashing eyes. Is there perhaps a little sexual frisson? Something stirring in the depths? Hands up, any man reading this. Ah, I knew it was you. Let’s watch the film together and get our freak on. Or maybe just our lipstick…

The Danish Girl ultimately has little in common with Priscilla, Queen of the Desert. The film is less about lipstick and letting go than it is about the crisis that follows it, when cross-dressing isn’t enough. Rather than delivering the transvestite indie romance hinted at by its seductive cover, and after initially telling a story of self-discovery and sexual freedom, there is a narrative and structural transformation. Hold onto your hats folks, it’s a true story. The second act of the film is a master class on how to destroy a happy marriage. And it was so happy! Perhaps built up by the filmmakers for the sake of melodrama, or perhaps to prove the heterosexuality of Einar, Redmayne’s character, so as to make his transformation into Lili seem less like an excuse for mere homosexuality. In the history of cinema such perfect married bliss has never been so utterly destroyed from within the marriage itself. Einar’s alter-ego, offended by her male scrotum, wants it off, and his wife can only accept. And it was all going so well!
The Danish Girl - Dress
The film opens in nature. The enigma of life – growing, innately sensate, developing without the complexity of mind. Human nature is very different, this film will say. The trees become a painting. Naturalness becomes mediated, transcribed to simulacra, and the trouble begins. The wholeness of nature made into a mere thing of the mind. It is 1926, a gallery in Copenhagen where life is transcribed in the mode of the day: paint. Our mode is cinematic; our exhibit is images of ourselves as we are, or as we think we are. There stands Alicia Vikander, actress, Gerda, wife of the painter. His painting is his unique choice of perspective on the world. She knows it and will accept the coming change in him, but a more sensuous incarnation of her husband will later deny her own sensuality. The painting is bleak but he will soon remodel himself, irrevocably.

The transformation begins well but is tinged with contradiction. We see through Einar’s eyes when he first tries on a dress and shoes and we see his face as his senses come alive to it. A deep longing is awoken within him, but is it a longing for femininity per se, or to feel a particular kind of sensuality that is made more available by the feminine? His fingers trace the outline of a seam and his breathing becomes audible. His wife is interested by his response and he makes a joke of it, adopting a ‘female’ pose. It makes for awkward viewing because he is playing a game that makes a mockery of his inner reality. He can’t take himself seriously.

The tension of that moment resonates throughout the film. Lili’s continued adoption of ‘feminine’ postures and behaviours seems to be a pretence, an outward show of femininity, when the truth of Einar’s revelation is inward, unavailable to the camera except through a close-up of his face or a sharp, quiet intake of breath. But is it Einar’s pretence, or Redmayne’s?

And I found myself asking “Is everything available to men? Even femininity can be his. Is masculinity available to women in the way that femininity is available to men?” I don’t know the answer.

The Danish Girl - Lili
In Act Two, Einar puts his penis away, hiding it between his thighs as he reflects on his own reflection. But is his longing for femininity necessarily at odds with the outward trappings of masculinity? As a man he is androgynous, and somehow his penis looks feminine. He is physically made like a man but the quality of femininity itself is not physical, unless there is a blindness to emotion and a fixation on the surface and the merely aesthetic. Perhaps it is a lack of connection to their natural sensitivity that prompts transgender men to place such emphasis on outward appearance. Can this be true, to the point of ultimate sacrifice? Why must the acceptance of femininity necessitate the rejection of the masculine? Surely this is a modern malaise, confusion born of the magazine cover and the perfectly photoshopped curve of Beyonce Knowles pristine bottom. The Danish Girl seems to say that it is a problem as old as homosexuality itself, come to a head because of a social divide between men and women that has drawn us away from our natural state. Yet the resolution – to become like a woman – is as much a result of the social context as the problem itself.

Regarding surfaces, the cinematography of The Danish Girl has a lovely painterly quality. Lingering on the details of fabrics and furniture reminiscent of the camerawork in Jane Campion’s Bright Star. Interiors have the proportions and colour of contemporary Danish paintings and the streets of Copenhagen have a flatness and sameness of light that brings the action to the fore. Einar, dressed as a man, looks uncomfortable in his suits and hats. One sees the un-naturalness of formal clothing on such a sensitive creature.

The film has this tension between the surface of its artistry and the depth of its subject. There are two arts here, working in collaboration: the art of the image and the art of the story. The filmmaker has to create a seamless contact between these two elements, especially in an historical drama, so that the image does not look artificial, and the story does not seem contrived. Themes have to be eked out of the fabric rather than thrown in your face, and this too is the skill of the actor. To create depth in the narrative or theme, to compliment the surface image, and have neither overwhelm the other. The Danish Girl nearly succeeds. It looks perfect. Redmayne seems like an alien on screen, a male version of Tilda Swinton. Einar doesn’t belong, somehow, and one feels his alienation; his sadness is palpable. This is the conjunction between theme and image.

The look is the theme here. However the theme of transgender identity is given such weight, both by the actor and the narrative, that it unbalances the film. One feels that there is more to this story, more to the characters, than this constantly repeated discussion of gender. So it becomes fetishized, and perhaps that is a part of Einar’s condition, but it serves also to flatten the narrative. It becomes a story, an idea, and loses its wholeness and connection with the unknowable reality of daily living. The characters and situations stop leading and the filmmaker pulls it along a little too hard. The trees become a painting.

Gender and the Rejection of Self
the danish Girl - liligerda
There has been some rather hard editing in Act Two. Lili’s hidden existence has barely been revealed and she is confessing to Gerda of having had an affair with a man. It was an affair of one scene, with lines too coy to be believed, and revealed the film’s central conceit that Lili is not merely Einar in disguise. This tension is compounded by our knowledge that she is most certainly Eddie Redmayne in disguise. (You can tell, when you look at her.) Lili is coy, feminine, shy and demure, as you might expect. Not at all like a real woman. Her mannerisms are those of a woman that a transgender man would aspire to be, or perhaps those of an actor who is trying too hard. Redmayne’s performance is riveting but it is not clear whether he is playing a woman, or a man who is trying to behave like a woman. Are those coy mannerisms his, or hers, and being a facade, as they seem, what does this mean for the truth of Lili’s determination that she is in fact a woman who must undergo massive and traumatic surgery?

It is worth comparing Redmayne’s performance to Dustin Hoffman’s in Tootsie. A straight man playing a lesbian woman, with all the femininity necessary and with less posing and pouting, less emphasis on glamour and the outward show of female-ness. Femininity is elusive, inward, like masculinity. Both performances work, but Hoffman is more natural. Perhaps because of the modern New York setting, or perhaps because he plays his woman as a female version of himself, whereas Redmayne seems to be playing a female version of someone else.

In a Parisian backstreet, Einar gazes through a window at a topless model. He mimics her movements and she guides his hands by moving her own, puppet-like. The music sways, discomfitingly Herrmann-esqe, and the psychosis and imprisoned sexuality of Vertigo springs to mind. Through various reflections and pulls of focus we see the interplay of the feminine and the effeminate. There is a preoccupation and an obsession with the surface of gender, the outward display somehow giving an answer to the uncertain question of identity. Utterly concerned with her outward appearance, Lili poses and minces, determines her identity by what is on the surface. Redmayne has poured himself into getting the look right and so Lili appears rather superficial, as if Cate Blanchett’s character in Carol had done nothing but smoke cigarettes and wear sunglasses. Is it irony, or contradiction, or deliberate artistry that this exists in a film simultaneously declaring that the inside is more important than outward appearance? It is the film’s central tension.

Conventional Narratives
The Danish Girl - Gerda (Alicia Vikander)
Gerda’s early acceptance of Lili was too good to be true. She comes unstuck, feels threatened, perhaps for the sake of melodrama. Or perhaps it is an understandable reaction, but how refreshing it would have been to have her open up to her husband’s discovery completely, without having to go through the soap operatics of jealousy, personal inadequacy and her own brand of homophobic confusion and disgust?

And what could be more conventional in cinema or soap than an extra-marital love affair? Do Einar’s transvestism and homosexuality make this aspect of the story more interesting? Ben Wishaw is given the role of his love object, Henrik, and indeed what’s not to love about Ben Wishaw? But he has precious little wisdom to impart and their lines together are some of the least worthy in the film:

Henrik: I don’t like all these lies.
Lili: She’s very protective.
H: Why don’t you just tell her about us?
L: I couldn’t do that .
H: Sorry. I don’t want to upset you.

Ugh! Puh-lease boys, just put up or shut up! Act one was awash with communication and understanding between man and woman. It’s Act Two and Lili is thinking with her dick. Apparently men are all the same, even when they’re women.

What is the message behind all this? Gerda complains about the starkness of his paintings and Einar replies, “Don’t worry about me disappearing into the bog. The bog’s in me, silly.” So his paintings are an expression of his inner life. This is a bit basic as motifs go; a bit too obvious a window into his soul, and it reflects the film’s somewhat clumsy handling of a highly ambiguous theme. Although the film is clearly concerned with the dichotomy of the inward life and its outward expression, the problem is neither hinted at subtly nor tackled head-on and questioned in full. Either route is available to storytellers but The Danish Girl fumbles the ball by assuming that the problem of identity is resolved by acceptance. The idea is that one’s inner life must be played out on the surface, be it canvas or skin, and that therein lies the path to truth and love, even if it involves castration. The film’s director Tom Hooper had this to say in the making of documentary (the only Special Feature on the Blu-Ray disc):

The more we can work to be allies of the transgender community and help drive the evolution towards acceptance, the better, and I think if in any small way this film can help that, that would be wonderful but I offer it from a humble position of knowing it’s a very complex subject, but I hope it will move people to greater acceptance.”

The Danish Girl is a sad story about an early case of body dysmorphic syndrome, posing as a story about sexual freedom and the right to self-determination. This right goes without saying. But if the film’s agenda is to merely drive people towards acceptance, it avoids the deep ambiguities about psychological disorder, morality and wellbeing. While we might proclaim that our uncomprehending society, in need of education, must accept Lili, she is herself in a perpetual state of rejection – of her body, the body of the very person supposedly in need of acceptance. If acceptance is the moral position, why can she not accept who she is, without forcing upon herself and her loved ones the greatest rejection known to cosmetic surgery? So the question is not ‘is the transgender community acceptable’ but ‘why is there this inward rejection of oneself?’ Why is nature’s gift not enough, or too much? If Einar is a woman on the inside, why must her male body be subjected to violence, to become feminised at knifepoint? That’s not a very The Real Lilly Ebbefeminine response. It seems like an insensitive response to oneself, to say the least. Why this preoccupation with surface and the rights of the mind over the body?

After her operation, Lili meets Henrik again and explains what has happened:

Henrik: So what you’re suggesting is that a doctor… intervened.
Lili: To correct a mistake in nature.
H: He made you a woman.
L: No, God made me a woman. But the doctor is curing me of the sickness that was my disguise.
H: A real woman.

What is the difference between a man and a woman? If one is clear inwardly about who one is, truly clear as this character claims to be, then why is there so much insecurity over the outward form? Why must it change? And when comes peace? Will this conflict between the outer and the inner, the inward authority controlling the outward surface, ever be resolved by the mere application of lipstick, or the surgeon’s knife? The human identity crisis that feeds the superficial narrative of this film is not ultimately resolvable through changing one’s appearance, because it is the inside that is in everlasting conflict with itself, not with the outside. There will always be something more that we don’t like about ourselves. Does anyone believe that Michael Jackson would have found inner peace if only he had been given the right kind of plastic nose?

It is perhaps worth noting that the surgeon who sterilised the real-life Lili Elbe in 1931, Kurt Warnekros, played here by Sebastian Koch as a hero with a sensitive bedside manner, joined the Nazi Party in 1933 and conducted involuntary sterilisations. There’s nothing sensitive about that! One imagines that he saw Lili as a medical opportunity rather than as a whole human being. Did he make her more whole, or less? The film says ‘more’:

Henrik: How are you, Lili?
Lili: I am entirely myself.

We hope so. Rest in peace, Lili Elbe.

Adam Miller

The Danish Girl | Biography, Drama, Romance | UK, 2015 | 15 | 16th May 2016 (UK) | Dir.Tom Hooper | Eddie Redmayne, Alicia Vikander, Amber Heard, Ben Whishaw, Matthias Schoenaerts | Buy: [DVD]