Warning: spoilers ahead!
Last night an old friend took me to see The Danish Girl at a movie theater in Boulder, Colorado, where I’m stopped for a week or so. As we walked across the parking garage with a herd of other people, we passed a large circle of adults standing around passing joints at an even clip, fifteen feet from the theater entrance. I did a double take, and then remembered I was in Boulder, Colorado. (I presume the red-eyed theatergoers were there to see Star Wars: The Force Awakens—all I know is they didn’t see The Danish Girl). We got our tickets and raced in as the opening credits were rolling; from the first shot I saw—a ballerina stretched over her chiffon skirts, looking up at a strained angle—this was a beautiful, heart-tugging piece of work.
The palette of this film is cold—it’s set in Copenhagen in 1926—blues, grays, bone-white, and icy black canals. This bleak background contrasts brilliantly with the stunning transformation of Einar Wegener, the male (and female) protagonist. Based on a true story, the film elegantly follows the first recorded transgender woman through her life as a depressed married man loved by a beautiful woman, into a fragile loose cannon of femininity. Eddie Redmayne plays the title role, in possibly the most demanding, revealing role of his career so far. (I haven’t seen The Theory of Everything). The only other movie I had seen him in was a stinking bomb, Jupiter Ascending, and I had badly misjudged him based on that rotten pumpkin. His performance here is flawless, and requires many subtle changes of language and mannerism—his hands were like their own characters, inventing a feminine vocabulary.
Before I get too far afield, here’s a rundown of the story: Danish artist, Gerda Wegener (Alicia Vikander), paints her husband, Einar Wegener, as a lady, in a wry joke on the art world. It awakens the feminine in Einar (who is also a painter), and he begins to cross-dress in public, under the name Lili Elbe. The Lili paintings are wildly popular, and the pair travel to Paris where Gerda gains recognition, and Einar turns more fully into Lili. But he must suppress Lili to save his marriage, which he suddenly cannot do anymore. Gerda loves him enough to accept it, and helps Lili emerge—this is a very complicated relationship, and masterfully handled onscreen. While the couple are in France, they find Einar’s childhood friend, Hans Axgil, played by Matthias Shoenaerts, who fleshes out their shared past (secret kisses, the shame of being caught), and offers a masculine counterpoint to Lili and Gerta. Alicia Vikander is outstanding; her character also changes in this story, from a confident artist secure in a joyful marriage, to a possessed painter, slashing the lines of Lili’s body across canvas after canvas. The love of her life is gone, and a strange new person occupies his body. She chooses, and succeeds, to love this other person as a friend.
After a string of sadistic doctors, a few of whom Einar barely escapes (think ominous lobotomy knives, straight jackets, radiation horror shows), they find a German doctor who is willing to try the first male-to-female sex reassignment surgery. The director, Tom Hooper, keeps the pacing steady, with pressure: things are being attempted here that have never been tried before. A man is posing as a woman in public, before and after his total castration—an operation that rarely succeeds. The second surgery is to shape him into a woman, and it’s riskier than the first. It’s never been done before, not in recorded history, and the previous candidate fled hours before the operation—but Lili never hesitates. Surgery in 1926 was dangerous; infections happened all the time, drug dosages were a crapshoot, and doctors operated without scrutiny. Infections take hold of Lili after both surgeries; morphine and Gerda’s care bring her back the first time.
After the first surgery, Lili returns with Gerda to Copenhagen, and takes a job in a department store. She’s the envy of the other girls, her red lipstick radiant against pale, long cheeks. She passes easily, and other women compliment her slim hips (perfect for the twenties ideal of beauty) and graceful walk. Eddie Redmayne, I mean, Einar, changed from male to female so completely that by the end of the film I couldn’t even remember what he looked like as a man. I hope he does win the Oscar.
After the second surgery, Lili wakes and says, “I am wholly myself now.” She asks to be taken outside to the garden, where she dies, Gerda at her side. The last scene lunged right at my heart: Gerda and Hans travel to the fjords of their dead friend’s childhood, passing scenery that has appeared throughout the story in Einar’s paintings. They stand in strong winds at the top of a tall ledge, looking over the sea. Lili’s peach and black silk scarf frees itself from Gerda’s neck and flies up, up and out, folds itself and opens again, is gone.
Please forgive the plot summary; this story is so dense and told so well I had to run through it again. Lili’s diaries were published as a book, “Man into Woman,” in the 1930s, and this book is the first of its kind. Transgender people are gaining some ground with civil rights, but it’s a slow fight. We live in a dark time for humanity, when the other is pushed away, made hideous. It was not always this way: androgyny was once a sign of the gods, sleeping with both men and women was the right of the tribe’s shamans. The Danish Girl offers more of the human story than ten lesser movies combined. My friend and I left the theater quietly, and that night I dreamt of giant women with unblinking eyes.