Film

Mistaken Identity: The Real Subject of The Danish Girl

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).

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“Not everything is about you” – Gerda Wegener

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.

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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.

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Moomins on the Riviera (2015)

Written for RAF News May 2015

Tove Jansson’s classic comic strip has found its way to the big screen after 60 years, with the Moomins setting sail for the south of France in search of adventure and a taste of the high-life.

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Snorkmaiden, taken by the allure of champagne on the beach, leads Moomin (a cingeworthy Russel Tovey), and his family, as they set out in a humble sail boat across stormy seas to find themselves like fish out of water among the glitz and glamour of the Riviera.

The traditional hand-drawn animation gives the film a beautiful composition that can at times blossom into glorious surrealism – roughly sketched storm clouds shed long streams of raindrops over a golden sea as the well-meaning Moomins find themselves in trouble once again.

Where most films aimed at children these days have an edge to them, layered with jokes for the parents or breaking from the story with a wink-nudge, Moomins on the Riviera carries charm in its sincerity (although there is one brilliantly absurd moment when a character falls in love and has to get his cousin to take his place in the story whilst he gets married.) Where 2D cartoons like SpongeBob SquarePants and puppets like the Thunderbirds have been converted into CGI its impressive how Moomins holds onto its very essence in both values and visual style.

Throughout their ordeal of being mistaken for eccentric royalty and running up bills that they can’t pay, the Moomin family maintain their naïve sense of wonder and innocence. Though they can be swallowed by insecurities and anxiety, they are for the most part delightfully free of self-awareness. This works in complete contrast to the snooty jet-sets of the south of France where the sharp faced locals are interested only in status and celebrity. “We simply don’t fit in here” comments MoominMama, noticing the gap between their way of life and that of local star Audrey Glamor.

Moomins on the Riviera meanders for the most part but it is certainly a heart-felt children’s film that, like the family leading the adventure, isn’t trying to be something it isn’t and embraces its character.

The Second Coming of a Scientific God in Transcendence

Transcendence, the directorial debut of Wally Pfister, was a science-fiction blockbuster released last year that was condemned as a critical failure. Many reviews criticised the film for its inability to contain the expansive concept and the scale of the story. An undiscussed element of the film which may have also impacted its reception is the structure of the narrative and the unusual ideals that it presents when compared to typical Hollywood fare. The following analysis will look at how Transcendence subverts the standard model of story-telling by reversing religious and scientific values – and by making Johnny Depp Jesus.0.

TRANSCENDENCE

In The Hero with a Thousand Faces Joseph Campbell looked at the archetypal hero that traversed the mythologies of ancient cultures, theorising that there was really only one overarching story structure, which he termed the ‘monomyth’. This universal metanarrative applies not only to theology but contemporary narrative forms such as cinema – Hollywood especially – appearing to reinstate the same values now as they did centuries ago. Reduced to the extreme the monomyth can be seen as the journey of a hero who has his faith tested through trials of doubt before he can achieve success on his quest. Inherent in this story structure is the conflict between faith and doubt, attributes that I would argue (and have argued again and again) are aligned with religion and science respectively: with faith treated as heroic or noble, and doubt a sign of weakness or ill-intention.

The hero is typically the protagonist of the story whom the audience will follow and support. Transcendence is unusual in that it has no clear protagonist; or rather it has one then kills him in the first ten minutes of the film. With no guide through the narrative, the audience are presented two opposing perspectives that represent faith and doubt, and so experience the trials of the hero first hand. Crucially though, the positions of religion and science, essentially good and evil, are reversed so that the audience truly doesn’t know whether they should be believing or not; whether to have faith or doubt. (more…)

Selma (2014)

Written for RAF News Jan 2015

In the wake of Martin Luther King Jr.’s  historic ‘I Have a Dream’ speech, and after the supposed break up of segregation in the States, Selma picks up in the south where things don’t seem to have changed much at all – where four girls have been murdered by white supremacists and where black citizens are still prevented from registering to vote.

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When Dr. King (David Oyelowo) hears this news, he decides to use his platform to bring attention to this continued injustice by arranging a march from Selma to Montgomery Alabama.

Although Dr. King is introduced accepting the Nobel Peace Prize, he is not shown to be an outright hero but a passionate and charismatic preacher who knows how to use a stage and move a crowd. No film had until now focussed on Dr. King and so it comes as a pleasant surprise that director Ava DuVernay avoids the pitfall of deifying this cultural icon and instead shows him as a man – a complex figure complete with all his faults and foibles.

Oyelewo’s King presents the contrast of the man on and off stage: speaking with a measured poetic rhythm that erupts into familiar passionate cries when in front of a crowd, but thoughtful – at times doubtful and doubting even – behind closed doors.

In showing this side to Dr. King, Selma is able to shift focus to the issues at the core of the film and observe the people that marched together on that momentous day, exploring their individual stories and struggles. In a sense Selma looks at the human side of a legend, showing Dr. King to be an ordinary person, and the extraordinary side of regular people as they came together to stand up against oppression.

Locke (2013)

Ivan Locke (Tom Hardy) must juggle the collapse of his marriage, pacify the pleas of the woman about to give birth to his child, and oversee the preparation of a job that he has just left behind in order to be at the hospital – all of this he must do on the drive from Birmingham to London constrained to the phone in his car.

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Ivan is a level-headed pragmatist whose efficiency is the evident force behind his success as a construction foreman. Though now, due to a one night stand with a woman he felt sorry for, he decides to be present for the birth, which means abandoning one of Europe’s biggest ever concrete pours for the base of a skyscraper. All we see of Ivan is how he interacts with others over the phone; how he deals with mounting levels of stress from all directions. Somehow – under the weight of overlapping crises – he maintains a rational distance that allows him to remain in control, even as events tear away from him and spiral.

Ivan shares his name with the Enlightenment age English philosopher John Locke, who supported the theory of the tabula rasa, or: the blank slate. This theory proposes that humans do not have inherent or innate qualities, that they are instead shaped by their own experience. In the case of nature vs. nurture the blank slate supports the latter. This is the defining feature of, and prime motivation for, Ivan. Between phone calls he is caught arguing with the spirit of his late father, raging at empty backseat through the rear-view mirror, as though he is being beckoned from beyond the grave to become a failure and a bad father. Ivan uses this fury as fuel to break the cycle of nature – to prove that he can decide his own fate and straighten the family name. Not only does he decide to be present for the birth, but he tasks himself with overseeing an enormous job that he will likely be fired from anyway. This does not matter, Ivan has set a precedent of loyalty that transcends the divide of business and personal, significantly painted with the metaphor of laying the foundation of a building. But as he states himself of the skyscraper, if cracks appear at the base, support is compromised and it becomes a threat.

Like the eponymous character, we too are locked in this situation; trapped in this single location for the journey. However, the film seems to not only be aware of this, but weary and apologetic, as it aims to keep things visually interesting by constantly cutting to external shots and various distracting angles. Shooting the entire film from start to finish in one take (or 37 minutes due to the capacity of the memory cards) and repeated two or three times a night for 6 days, the performance naturally has tension built into it’s construct and thus holds a pressure of it’s own. When permits to film on the M1 were revoked at the last minute, it is as though life was imitating art and echoing Ivan’s struggle to arrange road closures. Not only that, but the cold that Locke suffers is actually Hardy’s; the frustration that bursts out of Locke in reaction to the call waiting alert is Hardy’s too – actually reacting to the petrol gauge as it interrupted the drama and altered later in post-production. The tension of the film is palpable as it is, to some degree, real. buried Buried (2010), the single-location thriller released a few years prior, had a similar concept and incorporated a similar style, with sole actor Ryan Reynolds buried alive in a coffin experiencing a more life-threatening stress whilst other characters appear as voices in phonecalls. Focussed on a more extraordinary situation, this Hollywood film is suitably made into a spectacle through it’s set design which allowed this minimal space to be transformed. Locke, which is so gripping for its realism and its nuanced performance, does not need this escape or stylism. There is enough movement in frame to keep the your attention and Hardy offers a captivating performance in the subtlety of his acting: each micro-expression magnified by the intensity and intimacy of the camera. When Ivan first smiles it comes as a relief, it feels sincere and hard-earned and so we experience this same satisfaction. It seems that this could have all been heightened if the direction hadn’t taken attention elsewhere – it was as though the film’s strength was being treated as it’s weakness, and so it missed out on the payoff of its bold simplicity if it had simply let the action unfurl in longer, uncut takes. That being said, the tension is inescapable still, and the film is undoubtedly ambitious as it is. An impressive film that shows the capacity of film to do so much with so little.. and Tom Hardy.

No Ordinary Love Story: The Subverted Romantic-comedy in (500) Days of Summer and Friends With Benefits

The mainstream romantic-comedy has steadily become saturated with genre conventions and narrative devices that seem to have shaped audience expectation. A formulaic love story that relies on certain narrative hooks and character details that become almost interchangeable. This is made more noticeable by the sub-genre trends that seem to overlap as they reflect current attitudes – think the few rom-coms released in 2010 that centred on artificial insemination. The films do not not disappoint rather they play out just as suggested in the trailer. While every genre has its conventions, two recent romantic-comedies Friends With Benefits (Gluck, 2011) and (500) Days of Summer (Webb, 2009) seem to bring attention to, and in some cases overtly criticise, the tendencies of the genre. Most importantly though both films offer the promise of no ordinary love story…  and both films break that promise.

In Hollywood

Recently more films have been challenging the conventions of the romantic-comedy genre, moving away from the uniform portrayal of heterosexual, Caucasian, materialist archetypes. The anomalous box-office success Bridesmaids (Feig, 2011) was viewed as a breakthrough for depicting stronger more rounded female characters – perhaps an affectation of actually being written by women. Although this film challenged certain Hollywood clichés and stereotypes it also appeared to reinstate and reaffirm others – such as the heterosexual, Caucasian materialist. (more…)

Blue Ruin (2014)

Written for RAF News April 2014

Dwight (Macon Blair) is a simple man of few words, who sets out to even the score when he discovers that the man charged with the murder of his parents is soon to be released from prison. Returning to his rural Virginia hometown in his run-down car, Dwight hunts down the freed murderer to exact his revenge. There is little time to process the events however as he immediately becomes the subject of another retaliatory hunt, and thus the inevitable cycle of revenge prevents escape for anyone involved.Blue Ruin

Unlike Drive, which had a sleek and purposefully silent Ryan Gosling as its anti-hero, Dwight just doesn’t really have anything to say. Where Gosling was a professional stunt-driver, Dwight is in fact homeless and lives in his car – the titular blue ruin which is seen rusted and riddled with bullet holes. He has nothing else and as such has nothing to lose. As a result, Dwight’s vacuous nature is given a volatile edge that keeps you in prolonged suspense.

Sudden moments of violence take you by surprise in their spontaneity as well as their graphic detail. They create a sense of unpredictability that keeps you in the moment and immersed in the tension, whilst dwelling on the results of violence that are usually glossed over in cinema. This is a film that revels in the complications and failures that stem from revenge.

Dedicated purely to his pursuit, Dwight can make you feel locked out and lacking any real connection with him. However, perhaps for this very reason, it feels genuine – believable almost. Almost. Comedic relief comes eventually in the form of Ben (Devin Ratray) an old school friend who decides to help Dwight without asking too many questions – not that he would get much from him anyhow.

Blue Ruin’s masterful element is in its moments of comedy that punctuate the bleakness. A sigh of relief before you return to the dark reality of the film. Though it is tough to connect with Dwight, the naturalism of the story and its cleverly reserved delivery keep you captivated.