Friday, 22 January 2016

Movie Review: The Danish Girl (2016)



After looking at Tangerine last month, I think that my cinematic perspective on transsexuality has been forever altered as a result. It is also going to serve as an interesting contrast to how the more mainstream film scene treats similar subject matter. Now, since I don’t go too far out of my way when it comes to what films get watched/reviewed around here, I don’t want to take any hoity-toity position when it comes to more independent cinema. That said, I can’t help but feel like subject matter such as transsexuality is better suited for the indie scene; the amount of sensitivity required to make a portrayal of such things work shouldn’t be hindered by any kind of company oversight. Then again, if Any Day Now with Alan Cumming proved anything, it’s that the indies are just capable of screwing up as the Hollywood system, so this could really go either way. This is The Danish Girl.

The plot: Einar (Eddie Redmayne) and his wife Gerda (Alicia Vikander) are both accomplished painters in 1920’s Denmark. On a whim, Gerda asks Einar to pose for one of her paintings to replace one of her female models. What follows is Einar being brought face-to-face with some difficult decisions concerning his own sexuality and even his sex, something that could bring him dangerously close to be labelled insane. Einar no longer feels comfortable as himself, and must let Lili be herself.

Eddie Redmayne had something of an odd year in 2015. On one hand, tailor-made Oscar winner with The Theory Of Everything; on the other hand, tailor-made Razzie winner with Jupiter Ascending. I maintain that, while the two can’t really touch each other in terms of quality, these show a rather impressive field of range for a single actor. True to form, this is no exception to that for quite obvious reasons. He may be doing a rather surface-level approximation of true femininity, which means that his portrayal of a woman trapped in a man’s body can feel calculated at times. However, as a depiction of someone who doesn’t fit in their own skin, regardless of the gender application, he seriously does a good job here. He pulls out a few of the body debilitation tricks that made Theory work out as well as it did, but they are at least being used to relevant effect. Alongside Redmayne, we have another promising actor in Alicia Vikander, who is amazing as the foundation that Lili so desperately needs as the film progresses. Her on-screen chemistry with Redmayne is phenomenal and, in a weird complement to her best role last year in Ex Machina, her humanity helps give a lot of perspective to both the internal and external conflicts that Lili’s existence brings with it. Apart from the leads, we have Britain’s resident “Do They Ever Sleep?” award winner Ben Whishaw as the third cog of a love triangle and does a decent job with that role, Amber Heard gives some bubbling energy to her best friend character and Sebastian Koch as the surgeon Warnekros manages to make his largely expository dialogue work to the film’s advantage.

There is a surprising and kind of unsettling complexity to the way that the film approaches the core notion of transsexuality. I say “surprising” because of how it doesn’t pull any punches in terms of the effect that such a mentality can have, not just for the person in question but those around them, and “unsettling” because of how it brings up so many different facets of the discussion and the kinds of answers it provides to them. The way the film initially portrays the transition from Einar to Lili can come across like the filmmakers aren’t giving enough attention to the right aspects, making it come across like this is just a game of dress-up that got out-of-hand. Her constant referral to herself and himself as two separate people also makes the medical consensus shown, that she is schizophrenic, seem like a genuine possibility. Considering we’re dealing with 1920’s sensibilities that label anything that isn’t heteronormative as ‘perversion’, that isn’t a conclusion that should be so easily reached. This is where Redmayne’s weaker performance as a female harms the film further, as it feeling like this much of a façade can make the fiction of the story come out into the open, reducing the film’s emotional impact as a result.

However, as the film continues, that disconnect ends up building up in the production background to eventually create a bedrock for the entire story. Lili’s portrayal of a female is built on certain stereotypes of what is so lovingly called “the fairer sex” because, even though she doesn’t feel comfortable as a man, he doesn’t have the life experience of being a woman to call on when it comes to how to act. It’s like paint: She can put all the clothes and makeup on that she can but, at the end of the day, she won’t feel right because she is still the same physical canvas; one that doesn’t fit how she sees herself. Probably the film’s strongest moment is one between Lili and Gerda: Lili is wearing one of Gerda’s nightgowns, while Gerda isn’t wearing anything; both of them, however, are stripped of whatever surface material they have. Their clothes, their paint, their leaves; all of that is abandoned, leaving only the vulnerable reality that lies underneath. The chaotic depiction of Lili’s transition actually makes sense when you consider just how impossible it can feel to believe you are in the wrong skin. There are very few feelings in the world that negatively affect a person more than the idea that something fundamental about them is wrong. Add on to that all of the prejudice that is attached to it, considering how close Lili is to being thrown into a straitjacket after consulting one of the doctors, and that desperation to feel like… well, you, can conflict with the dangers of admitting to everything that you truly are.

I previously mentioned images of paint and foliage in relation to gender identity. Given my stance on all things pretentious, I want to hit any accusations off at the pass that I am only repeating the somewhat hackneyed symbolism of the film. More so than anything else in the film, be it Lili’s surface femininity or the juggling that is done with the text’s transsexual themes, its heavy-handed imagery is what truly holds this film back from being as good it could be. At first, the juxtaposition of oil paint and face paint is made to subtly effective use with Lili’s early scenes with how she looks longingly at Gerda’s makeup table/mirror and at some of her clothes. But then, it seems like that along with any other bits of decent symbolism the film can conjure up are battered into the audiences’ heads. Lili’s gender duality, shown through the use of mirrors? Hammer it in. Lili only truly being herself in her dreams? Hammer it in. Lili, about to take the reassignment operation, is on-screen with expectant mothers to show two different forms of giving birth to new life? Hammer it in! It is honestly annoying, not purely because the subtext is being treated in such a blunt fashion, but because the filmmakers don’t seem to have enough faith in their own audience for them to understand what is being shown. Then again, this is coming from the same director who so wonkily brought Les Misérables to the big screen; the man isn’t the most nuanced storyteller out there.

All in all, this film definitely has its issues when it comes to portraying certain aspects of Lili’s sexuality. That said, the performances of Redmayne and Vikander more than shine through the murky characterization to bring a very definite and heartfelt depiction of a person trying to discover her own identity in a society that won’t allow it of her. Even with all the blunt force traumatic symbolism, this still feels like a suitable portrayal of a new life being brought out into the open; by film’s end, a definite journey has been taken that feels worth all the bumps along the way. It’s better than Sisters as, mishandled story elements aside, this keeps a more consistent engagement throughout that doesn’t involve any bouts of painful awkwardness. However, it ranks lower than The Revenant as this doesn’t have nearly as much technical prowess at its disposal, nor does it feel as tightly constructed as a story; hey, just because it wasn’t as involved in terms of dialogue doesn’t mean it wasn’t well-made.

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