Since moving from Santa Barbara, I’ve really missed the Cinema Society I belonged to there. It enabled me to see screenings of major films that were often followed by Q&As with directors, producers and actors. Luckily, I discovered the Jacob Burns Film Center in Westchester, became a member and have been enjoying the screenings there. Today’s was “The Danish Girl” after which director Tom Hooper (“The King’s Speech,” “Les Miserables”) fielded questions from board member and New York Times book reviewer (and former film critic) Janet Maslin.
“The Danish Girl” was based on the novel by David Ebershoff, which, in turn, was based on the actual diaries of Danish landscape painter Einar Wegener, who became Lili Elbe, the first ever recipient of male-to-female sex reassignment surgery. Married to portrait painter Gerde Wegener when the movie begins, theirs appears to be a happy union in every way – until Gerde’s model is late for a sitting and Einar fills in, putting on women’s stockings and posing in a woman’s costume. The very act touches off feelings Einar had been having since he was a child – feelings that he tried very hard to ignore. But then he starts wearing Gerde’s clothes and going out in public as a woman, and what began as a game between two bohemian artists grows into a chasm between them. Einar “identifies,” as the transgender movement would put it today, as a woman – as Lili – and after seeing doctors who tell him he’s crazy, finds one willing to perform the complicated surgery.
The story is a powerful one and its two leads play brave souls – “transgender” wasn’t even a term in the 1920s, after all – and I applaud the filmmakers for even getting their project financed and produced. As befitting a movie about two painters, the cinematography is very painterly. We see lush shots of landscapes and costumes and European settings. I only wish the emotional connection had been there too. It was all very tidy and tasteful, and the focus was on appearance (Lili looks in the mirror a lot as she’s transitioning into a woman) instead of an inner transformation.
Eddie Redmayne, who won last year’s Best Actor Oscar for “The Theory of Everything” and will likely get a nomination this year, makes a very pretty female, but his quivering lips and coquettish gazes nearly drove me nuts. Faring better was the actress cast as Gerde, Alicia Vikander, who walks away with the movie in my opinion. Her Gerde is feisty and loving and confused and angry – all the emotions you’d expect when confronted with the loss of the man she thought she knew. She, Tom Hooper and the movie will get nominated, I’m betting; it’s the kind of picture the Academy loves to nominate.
During the Q&A, an audience member commented that the movie seemed to fetishize the quest for female beauty over the sexual tug-of-war going on inside Einar/Lili, and he said the movie “left him cold.” My jaw dropped when he said that, because I’d never heard someone criticize a film with the director sitting right there. But the truth is he echoed my own sentiment about “The Danish Girl.” I’m glad I saw it, but in the end it left me cold too.