The strange thing about The Danish Girl is that it conveys its transexual heroine’s experiences in terms of erotic obsession—with silk stockings as the major fetish item—but is itself mostly sexless, at least as far as her life as a woman is concerned. Tom Hooper’s just-sophisticated-enough re-telling of the life of Lili Elbe, one of the first people to undergo a surgical sex change, is all about the desire of female forms; a typical scene finds Elbe watching a peep show, copying a stripper’s movements until she is noticed through the glass, and the two enter into a mirror dance. And yet the movie resists the one thing that could prove that it has some guts—namely, it resists turning Lili Elbe into an object of desire herself. Hooper’s camera hovers in close-up over bare shoulders, knees, and ankles, none of them Elbe’s: a tease, as though the movie were always hanging on the cusp of having something kinky to say about the two meanings of the word sex and what they might have to do with one another. “It doesn’t matter what I wear, it’s what I dream,” goes the The Danish Girl’s pull-quote line, but this is one of those cases where a viewer shouldn’t believe everything they hear.
But what about what they see? Because The Danish Girl is a movie of mirrors: vanities, full-lengths, and compacts, both literal and metaphorical. Elbe (Eddie Redmayne) strips naked before a costume mirror, penis tucked behind tensed thighs, unruly curls of pubic hair forming a feminine delta, teary eyes glazed with a hint of self-fascination. Is she a Narcissus figure? The Danish Girl introduces her as Einar Wegener, a minor Danish landscape artist in the 1920s, asked to don a dress and stockings for a painting by wife Gerda (Alicia Vikander), with the pseudonym “Lili” suggested jokingly by a friend. But if Lili Elbe begins life as a series of fantasy portraits, does that make The Danish Girl a movie about a painter who becomes a living painting, dropping art to work as a shop girl in Copenhagen? Or is it about a man so intoxicated with women that he becomes one? A reader can probably parse out here that The Danish Girl is fundamentally about needing to become something more perfect and beautiful, and that said thing happens to be a sexual identity (again, in both senses of sexual) that is devoid of sex.
There is one really revealing line in The Danish Girl, spoken by childhood best friend Hans Axgil (Matthias Schoenaerts) at a train station, like a classic film noir goodbye: “I’ve only liked a handful of people in my life, and you’ve been two of them.” For extra effect, Hans is dressed in a fedora and broad-shouldered overcoat that makes him look like a private eye, which makes Lili Elbe the red-haired femme fatale. Trans as both a prefix and an idea suggests fluidity, but here there are only strict binaries and cycles of death; as far as the movie is concerned, Lili Elbe and Einar Wegener are two completely different individuals, unwitting killer and willing victim. That’s sort of how the historical Elbe saw it, too, considering Einar to be something like a different soul who’d inhabited the same body. Here, he is an archetypal moody 20th century painter, possessed by difficult dreams; his memories die with him, and out comes Lili Elbe, the girl without a past, shy and giggly, thinking only of babies. One can’t help but think of the words of Jean Cocteau, another queer artist who was hobnobbing around Paris around the same time that Gerda and Lili arrived: “You’ve never seen death? Look in the mirror every day…”
There’s a lot stewing here—perhaps more than Hooper’s upscale, designer-eclectic direction can pick through. The source material is a novel by David Ebershoff, which plunks The Danish Girl somewhere midway between a loosely factual historical drama and a literary adaptation; besides lopping a few decades off the story, it presents Gerda Wegener as strictly straight, whereas her historical counterpart is best remembered for her lesbian erotica, full of pale young women with speck noses, tiny feet, and chicken-leg thighs. Hooper (The King’s Speech) likes distressed chic interiors and extreme wide-angle lens master shots, which makes every room look like a fishbowl with peeling wallpaper, and he sprinkles in an art history reference here and there (including a few direct lifts from Hammershøi) to no effect. One sometimes gets the sense that they’re watching a movie struggle to figure itself out, trying this and that. Perhaps the problem is with Lili Elbe, or at least the way the movie paints her.
Redmayne, who is androgynously skinny and a gifted mimic, would make a great David Bowie if anyone ever wanted to make a biopic, and he’s more credible and attractive as a woman than any well-known female actor not named Tilda Swinton would be as a man. This is important, because The Danish Girl conceives Einar and Lili as discrete characters, rather than one person masquerading as another. But the thing about Lili is that, having lived for so long inside Einar’s head, she emerges with great manners but no interior life of her own. There’s an irony that a movie about a trans individual who needs to live and be accepted as a woman should have some of the worst symptoms of a very straight and very male gaze. Lili Elbe is a technical accomplishment rather than a flesh-and-blood person, a pure image, an artwork, emphatically a girl rather than a woman, who ends the film resembling nothing more than one of those fragile beauties who die of tuberculosis in 19th century novels.