On the surface The Danish Girl looks like another film from Tom Hooper designed to scoop up awards for its grandiose sense of importance. But what is so striking about the film is its layers of detail, its subtlety and symbolism, and the formidable character of Gerda Wegener (Alicia Vikander) who I would argue is the driving force and focus of the film (despite Vikander winning the Academy Award for best supporting actress in this role).
The Danish Girl is an adaptation of the novel by the same name which is in fact a fictionalised account of the life of Einar Wegener/Lili Elbe. Played in the film by Eddie Redmayne, Einar was allegedly the first person to undergo sex reassignment surgery. Despite its basis in reality, this source material was favoured over Elbe’s autobiography Man into Woman, which suggests that the film is not so much concerned with historical facts but instead wants to focus on the greater story that can be told. I think this is down to the positioning of Gerda Wegener and the relationship that she had with Einar/Lili. Unlike the film, the two had split-up and did not see each other after the surgeries, which were also a little more complicated than suggested in the film.
By telling this fictionalised account, the film is able to use Gerda to open up the story to a broader audience and have them understand and empathise with a position that may still persist as alien. For those unfamiliar and perhaps unsympathetic to the experience of a gender identity crisis, we are shown the first recorded instance – the point at which it would have been most alien to everyone: to friends, family and society at large. We are introduced to someone experiencing this crisis at a time in which these views are seen as delusional and a defect of mental illness. Lili’s intuition and resilience, though validated by an audience gifted with hindsight, still comes across as stubborn when shown in the context of a world that doesn’t yet understand. By using Gerda as an audience surrogate, we witness her first understanding the situation, coming to accept it and finally offering support – all from the position of having to give up the person she loves. Gerda becomes the voice of empowerment and the model of progressive ideals, but more than this, she is the eponymous Danish girl – the very term used within the film in reference to her.
It is not only through painting that Gerda affects the development, or discovery, of Lili – she is the model of womanhood that Einar draws inspiration from. Einar looks to Gerda as a muse, often borrowing her clothes and taking advice on what to wear and how to walk. Hooper, utilising the medium of film, cleverly shows some distance between the effortless biological femininity and hyper-feminine imitation by using performance and overacting. In her desperate attempt to attain femaleness, Lili instantly becomes sexualised – Gerda playfully accuses her of turning Lili into a slut – and later her gestures and posture become warped in overreaching for the natural womaness that Gerda possesses. This relies on the ability of Redmayne to overact but maintain realism and for Vikander to appear completely natural. It’s an incredible act of cooperation and misdirection as the former takes focus and the latter blends completely. This muse-like inspiration turns out to be somewhat reciprocal and reflective as Lili inspires Gerda to capture her likeness in her paintings.
Gerda paints portraits and close-ups unlike her husband’s focus on landscapes. Where he looks to nature, she turns her gaze on men and in doing so makes them the subject, just as she does with Lili. Within the frame of the canvas Gerda creates this identity. To those looking at the painting they see a flirtatious, sexualised figure, the supposed female cousin of Einar. But it is far more complex than this – far more complicated than this two-dimensional image. In fact, whenever Lili’s portrait is being painted by Gerda, we watch her paint from behind the canvas, looking through. We are shown that there is a muddied and unclear dimension that can be overlooked in the painting, just as in the film itself.
There is an intertextual reading here, a parallel between Gerda and Hooper who both aim to bring out the femininity in their subject, although Hooper’s scope is much broader in the medium of film and as such he is able to employ both portraits and landscapes within his style, able to provide context around an image and focus on multiple subjects. Importantly though, it is through the framing of the film that different values are communicated to the audience, unconsciously or not.
After a credit sequence which mimics Einar’s landscapes, the film opens on a tight close-up of Gerda’s face as she looks at one of his paintings. We see that she is the focus – however dialogue tells us that she is not, as someone out of frame and out of focus asks her degradingly if she wishes that she could paint like her husband. Here Gerda is vulnerable and our attention is diverted immediately to who we presume the story to be about: Einar/ Lili. He is shown to us first with far less command in the frame, in the bottom quadrant of the screen, literally cornered by suited men adorning him with praise. He is trapped and it is only through a playful look to his wife that he can escape. Within these first few shots the entire story is laid out before us, using the the indistinct chatter of other characters as noise through which the couple communicate without words, the dialogue inferring the status and positioning of the characters, the framing of the scene telling us quite the opposite.
Besides shuffling through these aesthetic styles, there is an undeniable voyeurism to the camerawork as it peers through windows at often intimate moments. This is another device which is used throughout the film. Shooting through windows and within thick-set door-frames restates this painting-like quality but also suggests confinement, especially with regard to Einar. Early into the film, when Einar is discovering Lili, he is framed by the the clothing around him, with most of the screen filled by white frills. In this case the usually imposing hard lines that close in around Einar are softened, and this is shown to have an immediate impact on him, a release. This constraint forced upon Einar by the camerawork is gradually eased off as Lili finds herself, but only released fully in the closing moments of the film. In this scene a scarf that has come to represent Lili is caught in the wind and flies overhead (reminding of Todd Haynes’ Far From Heaven) and is captured in the widest possible frame – this final shot suggesting liberation.
Over the course of the film we have been exposed to a character who is experiencing an identity crisis, but it is only through this sidelined character that we are moved to understand and relate it to ourselves. Whether you sympathise or not, The Danish Girl shows the admirable stance of someone in love and how much they are willing to sacrifice in order for this person to be happy. It is this more relatable facet of the story that is honed in on by the filmmakers. If The Danish Girl is to be effective at opening minds, the surrogate is the most important role of the film and I believe that Hooper was fully aware of the fact.