The Danish Girl, Tom Hooper’s portrait of Jazz Age painters Gerda Wegener and her spouse, Einar, who butterflied into Lili Elbe via the world’s first sexual-reassignment surgery, is about gender and it isn’t. Like its subject, it’s fatally resolved to fit an ideal: the noble Oscar-bait biopic. If the script swapped transsexuality for heroin addiction, the beats of the story would scarcely change. There are secret jaunts, desperate doctor visits, pleas to change and, finally, the slow, chilly acceptance that a partner simply can’t. Last year, star Eddie Redmayne won Best Actor playing Stephen Hawking in The Theory of Everything, and The Danish Girl sticks to the template. Reminiscing one night on their bed, now divided chastely in two by a sheet, Gerda (Alicia Vikander) smiles that it “wasn’t so long ago we were married, you and me.” “You and Einar,” corrects Lili (Redmayne). Gerda suppresses an eye roll. How can a couple communicate when they can’t even agree on the words?
Redmayne plays Lili like a saint. Yet there’s sedition in the script, and a showdown for the film’s soul as Vikander, the stronger actor of the two, forces us to witness how much Gerda loses to give Lili life. I’ve seen it twice, and I still can’t figure out how Hooper feels about his characters. He and screenwriter Lucinda Coxon at first present this as a sort of horror story. At the start, Gerda and Einar are happy heterosexuals who hump like rabbits, the kind of couple who sicken their friends. One day, she begs him to pose for her in stockings and heels, and suddenly, a woman — Lili — bursts from his heart like the monster from Alien, killing its host. To Gerda’s dismay, the two stop having sex and switch from lovers to girlfriends. We rarely see them kiss again.
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At first, Einar can’t articulate his confusion. This was, after all, a time before today’s vocabulary existed, causing doctors, the villains of the film, to diagnose him with every disease from a cancerous growth to schizophrenia. Instead, Redmayne translates Lili’s urges in lingering looks at silk dresses, which suggest that the film doesn’t understand her deeper needs. Neither, perhaps, does Lili, whose focus is on the external: the fringed scarves, the elaborate gowns, the attention-getting red wig.
With Redmayne reduced to poses and smiles, Vikander wrests the movie away to show us how a truly modern woman behaves. As a portrait artist, she commands her male subjects to “yield”; as a lover, she’s eager to make the first move. Later, when her paintings of Lili are a hit, Gerda dedicates herself to her career, and their trajectories as homemaker and artist invert. Still, perversely, we can’t help noticing that their marriage becomes increasingly hierarchical — practically patriarchal — with Lili forcing Gerda to submit to her terms. Gerda is ditched at dinners, abandoned at her own art shows, drained of emotional support and thrust into celibacy.
But a third subcurrent undermines the whole film: None of it is true. In reality, Gerda wasn’t a lonely wife. She was a bisexual who made her name inking erotic sketches of women devouring each other on chaises longues and, by all accounts, got a thrill out of date nights with Lili. Here, she soothes Lili when her latest surgery fails — naively, the doctors hoped she could give birth with an implanted uterus. Actually, by then Gerda was divorced and living in Morocco with her second husband, an Italian diplomat. Gerda wasn’t a victim. The choice to make her one is the great mystery of the script: Why does The Danish Girl pretend to cheer Lili’s courage while changing the facts to make her seem selfish?
If The Danish Girl dared to critique its main characters, it’d be brave. If it had celebrated a modern marriage that worked for 26 years — much longer and stranger than the film lets on — it would be truly pioneering. Real life is full of kinks, mistakes and selfish behavior. Biopics, however, are made of formulaic virtue.