Monday, 1 May 2017

The Danish Girl Film Essay

The Danish Girl

Tom Harman

Unfortunately, I have to say that I am not the greatest fan of Tom Hooper’s The Danish Girl. Of course, as with any of Hooper’s films, you can say, ‘what is there to dislike?’ (a part from, say, the awful singing in Les Misérables): we have the beautiful and talented actors Eddie Redmayne and Alicia Vikander, the stunning European scenery, the sparse but genteel surroundings of Copenhagen and the luxury of bohemian Paris, all stunningly shot in Hooper’s painterly aesthetic, much as in the highly successful The King’s Speech and Les Mis. But, in a way, it is precisely this aesthetic that I’d like to take issue with.

Hooper’s aesthetic is essentially apolitical or depoliticised. It aims to create a romantic and nostalgic image of personal struggle specifically divorced from History, subsuming the political questions of the past and present into the dominant narratives of bourgeois society. The story of The Danish Girl is the perfect material for this sort of assimilation as it aims to address the inherent questioning of normative gender stereotypes presented by transgender people by reaffirming a form of gender essentialism that neutralises such a threat. How does the film do this.

First, in its use of extreme close up and fish-eye lens. The camera is constantly focussing us on the personal and sensual at the expense of a wider view of the world. Similarly with the film’s painterly compositions, there is little room for a chance event or imposition from outside into this refined atmosphere: the working class are either violent or picaresque and the medical institutions austere and cold. Life, even with its troubles, is still beautiful for this privileged class.

Second, let’s look at the portrayal of Gerda (Alicia Vikander). Gerda is initially portrayed in the film as the liberated, bohemian woman, but is essentially the loving, faithful middle-class wife to Einar Wegener (Eddie Redmayne). She loves him so much that she indulges his desire to dress as a woman, but, once the ‘game’ is over and Lili does not return to the realm of fantasy, Gerda breaks down. We see Gerda constantly trying to help Lili but, like any ‘real’ woman, the film suggests that she needs the support and love of a man which she eventually finds in the arms of Hans (Matthias Schoenaerts). The film reasserts the heterosexual couple as the ultimate normative ground of interpersonal relationships.

In this way, Lili Elbe plays the Mrs Doubtfire role. She shows Gerda how to act as a ‘proper’ woman, holding the ‘proper’ values of wanting to be beautiful, wanting a husband and, of course, wanting a child. Here we have the classic construct of woman as male fantasy, where the male female-impersonator is more female than the female (pace Judith Butler) (we must remember the choice of the cisgendered Redmayne). Lili turns herself into an object for the male gaze and acts in the suitably passive and receptive manner of traditional hetero-normative stereotypes. This is suitably essentialised by Lili at the end of the film when she recounts her dream that she is a child and her mother calls her Lili. Through Lili’s gender reassignment she reaches her ‘true’ self and, luckily for the audience and Gerda, she dies so that she can be the sacrificial hero who follows her true calling, realising her true self as a ‘proper’ woman. Male Einar was a mistake and the natural order is once again resumed at the end of the film, everyone in their right place.

The Danish Girl, in this way, maintains the kind of conservative narratives that Hollywood is so famous for, where the viewer can luxuriate in the aesthetics of a nostalgic 1920s where the only ‘others’ are a criminal or servile underclass or the threat of medical institutionalisation, shown in opposition to the liberal and open-minded cultured classes. There is no room for politics here only the maintenance of the family and the heterosexual couple as the font of true happiness. The Danish Girl does bring the question of gender reassignment into public discourse, but neatly translates the threat of a transgender politics into an updated gender essentialism that affirms the status-quo once again.
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