Last of the Monster Kids

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Friday, February 19, 2016

OSCARS 2016: The Danish Girl (2016)

Like all Oscar seasons, 2016 has had its share of controversy. Most of the discontent has focused on the overwhelming whiteness of the nominees. A smaller controversy has centered around “The Danish Girl.” A film about the first person to undergo a male-to-female sex reassignment surgery, the movie has been badly received by those actually within the trans community. I’m a white, straight, cis male and do not have any special insight or understanding of being trans. I don’t intend to approach this review from that angle so please forgive me if I don’t discuss “The Danish Girl’s” social or political ramifications. Instead, I’ll discuss the movie as a handsomely-produced if shallow biopic.

Einar and Gerda Wegener are a married couple living in turn-of-the-century Copenhagen. Though both are painters, Einar’s landscapes have gained more success than Gerda’s more intimate portraits. The two love each other dearly but Gerda doesn’t realize that Einar is actually transgender. What starts as kinky cross-dressing games re-awaken Einar’s desire to become Lili, the female inside. This realization challenges their marriage, Lili’s physical and psychological health, and Gerda’s feelings for her husband. The journey eventually leads Lili to a controversy doctor that can change Lili’s body to match the person she actually is.

It should be noted that “The Danish Girl” is only inspired by history, based on a fictionalized book written eight decades after the portrayed events happened. Perhaps in the interest of making a sometimes difficult to understand subject palatable for a wider audience, “The Danish Girl” re-frames Lili’s story around the marriage to Gerda. Gerda is portrayed as a very understanding wife. When Einar undresses to reveal female undergarments, Gerda isn’t shocked. Instead, she plays along. Later in the film, as Einar makes it clear that Lili is the true identity, Gerda struggles at times. However, she is always on her husband’s side. As doctors try to chemically castrate Lili or lock Lili away in a mental hospital, she defends her husband. The trip to France, saving Lili from imprisonment, saves them both. As Lili undergoes surgery, physically changing, Gerda remains a companion until the end. Politics aside, the portrayal of a faithful, ever-true marriage is awfully touching.

From the Academy’s point of view, they clearly see “The Danish Girl” as an actor’s movie. Eddie Redmayne is the kind of highly visibly physical performer that Oscar loves. In the early part of the film, when his character is nervous about revealing a secret side, Redmayne twitches and trembles. The point when Einar decides to live as Lili is symbolized during an overwrought sequence where Redmayne stripes down and tucks his penis between his thighs. Redmayne spends the rest of the movie whispering in a quasi-falsetto, beaming with his big eyes. It’s an incredibly overdone performance, mannered and showy, but less distracting than Redmayne's Oscar-winning turn in "The Theory of Everything." (Redmayne’s British-ness, his natural androgyny, and his tendency towards dramatic performance all but guarantees that he’ll star in a damnably conventional biopic of David Bowie someday.) Alicia Vikander gives the superior performance, subtly showing the conflict with her eyes without drawing undue attention to herself. I happen to disagree with the Academy. The acting you don’t see is the best acting. Vikander is still the favorite to win, where she’s nominated in the Supporting category despite obviously being a lead.

“The Danish Girl” is directed by Tom Hooper, a filmmaker who makes movies I don’t usually like. I only about half-like “The Danish Girl” but it sure is a pretty looking movie. The cinematography is gorgeous. All the actors are shot in a way so that their skin is semi-translucent, making them look like vampires. The final shot of the movie, a scarf dancing through the air on a wind, is leaden with meaning. Yet “The Danish Girl” still looks incredible, all the buildings and landscapes appropriately framed like paintings. The muted color palette is an odd decision but makes the brighter colors pop. The costume design is incredible, all the colors and design choices made to make a statement. They’re undeniably eye-catching. That Oscar prestige money is up on the screen. I’m not above liking a pretty picture.

My biggest issue with “The Danish Girl” is how determined it is to be Important, filled with an overly pointed script and acting-for-acting’s-sake from Redmayne. But it’s not a bad movie either, as Vikander is quite good and the movie contains some interesting visual choices. How the film will be received in ten years, when we’re hopefully more educated and accepting of trans people, I do not know. As it sits now, it’s more-or-less a typical bit of Oscar bait with a few recommendable things about it. [6/10]

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