Saturday, January 23, 2016

The Danish Girl

There's a heady dose of politics around The Danish Girl that I can't claim to be an expert on.  I've heard and read folks who claim it's pandering, that it relies too heavily on a kind of old school visual language of understanding the trans body that may now be outdated, that it's problematic for the trans woman at the film's center to be played by the cisgendered Eddie Redmayne.  I've heard, too, that some feel the narrative's dramatic center is refigured and displaced so that it belongs less to Lili Elbe (Redmayne) and more to Gerda Wegener (Alicia Vikander); the woman who was her wife.  While I try to keep on top of the constantly evolving discussion of gender politics, I'm not sure I can address any of these arguments in a way that would make for a satisfying analysis.  I can only discuss it as a work of cinema.

Of course, this is what I do with most films on this site, so why the disclaimer?  Well, perhaps because The Danish Girl has been positioned less as a work of narrative cinema and much more as a sort of political object.  Part of this has to do with its timed release as a piece of awards bait at a time when the Oscars have become - increasingly - a microcosm of our national issues, especially around questions of gender, identity, and race.  The Danish Girl is uniquely positioned as a work designed both to continue a very significant cultural discussion and also, via marketing, tone, etc, to make that conversation melodramatically digestible for those with delicate sensibilities. It asks you to feel, it uses every formal method in its arsenal to draw you into the world of its characters, it's impossibly pleasant even when it delivers its harsh sentences.  Its biggest problem, simply put, is that it believes it is brave and revolutionary when, in reality, it's little more than a very pretty work of portraiture.

The Danish Girl is the film equivalent of a work of 'chardonnay fiction' - by which I mean the sort of "other's struggle" beloved by wine-swilling book club groups gathered on plush sofas.  It aspires to illustrate something with very noble intentions, and it is very possible that for a large section of the population it will succeed in doing just that.  There are likely quite a few positive things to be gleaned from Lili Elbe's story, whether or not you object to just who's portraying her, etc.  The film is loving in its attention to characters and detail, and while it may be reductive or counterproductive to suggest that Einar's transition was so thoroughly triggered by a bit of dress touching and cross dressing in service to his wife's art, it's a solid reminder that there's a history of personal stories reaching far, far beyond the public immediacy of a figure like Caitlin Jenner.   If we can agree on the fact of its surface level reading, we can look beyond that to the actual film as yet another in the yearly line-up of biopics, period dramas, and capital-A Acting, and I can say this:  it's okay.

While not the great and important film director Tom Hooper may believe it to be, The Danish Girl stands as an artfully considered period picture that remembers to allow its form to reflect its content.  Lili and Gerda were painters, attuned to textures, aesthetics, details and light in a way that stands as extremely important in the creation of their shared world and their own concepts of their individual identities.  The film remembers this at every turn, and makes for a masterful example of art direction and curated mise-en-scene.  There's a painterly quality to so many of the surfaces throughout, particularly the cloudily dappled walls of the pair's shared apartment.  Costumes, wood grains, details and perfectly directed light bathes them - repeatedly - in a world that feels rich, highly textural, open to the possibility of an intensity of feeling and the importance of appearance.   As much as I could have followed the story from a pre-existing blueprint, the film's look was handsome enough to allow it to be a worthy distraction.

There are, it almost goes without saying, also the twin performances at the center of this film. Redmayne has earned the largely expected attention for his role here, and though there's something about his facial tics and features that register for me as somehow existing in the uncanny valley (he looks like an extraordinarily well-made automaton most of the time, might just be a Replicant), he is an actor who clearly thinks a great deal about the significance of subtle shifts in expression.  He can do a lot while standing in front of a mirror, and the interiority of his characters reads clearly in his expression.   Alicia Vikander, too, finds exceptional ways to manifest the conflicted emotions of Gerda.  I can't agree with the critics who claim the narrative winds up too focused on Gerda's emotional struggle, but I can note that if people felt that happening it may have largely been due to just how convincing Vikander is able to make Gerda's mood swings and knowingly selfish hesitations - even when she's presented as an extremely helpful and supportive figure.

These are the good things at the core of The Danish Girl, and perhaps with a bolder director it could have moved away from the emotional manipulations of its camerawork to something bigger, more significant, less painterly and more alive.  As it stands, it's a lovely and occasionally thoughtful little bauble, just not a particularly sharp or pointed one.

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