In The Danish Girl, which releases in India on Friday, painter Lili Elbe, born male as Einar Wegener, transitions to a woman. This is Copenhagen, right after the First World War, and there is no template for such behaviour. (The movie is inspired from the true story of the world's first transgender woman to undergo sex reassignment surgery, but beyond that basic premise, it is heavily fictionalised.)
Einar's transformation is prompted by him appearing as a model for Gerda, his wife, who as a painter herself, draws nudes. When Gerda's model is unable to make it to the studio one day, she makes Einar try on the costume, setting off something in him. The role is played by the intensely pretty Eddie Redmayne, a chameleon of an actor who won an Oscar last year for becoming Stephen Hawking in The Theory of Everything. Redmayne has been nominated for a Best Actor Oscar this year too.
An unsuspecting Gerda must countenance the slow disappearance of her husband, as he first starts dressing as a woman, and later, chooses to undergo sex reassignment.
There is a past to Einar's transformation into Lili. As a young boy, he had fallen in love with Hans, a schoolmate, but had nipped those passions in the bud. Now as he rediscovers his true self, he sees that his love for Hans was really an expression of his nascent femininity. It changes everything in him, and in his relationship with Gerda.
Most of the film deals with the psychological warfare these events occasion. An unsuspecting Gerda must countenance the slow disappearance of her husband, as he first starts dressing as a woman, and later, chooses to undergo sex reassignment. The film devotes much time to covering the prejudices of the time, as Lili is diagnosed by a battery of doctors as insane, perverse, or worse, schizophrenic.
In spite of this, Gerda is unwilling to give up. Having tried everything to change Lili's heart, she seeks Hans's help to deal with her domestic crisis. Hans is now a celebrated art dealer in Paris and Gerda hopes that his presence would force Lili to revisit her past and perhaps agree to continue living as Einar.
That does not happen, and Gerda eventually comes to accept Lili's decision. But something less obvious also happens. Hans displays an interest in Gerda and the viewer expects that she, dealing with the pain and trauma of a gender-transitioning spouse, will give in. But she does not.
She pines for Einar, who is now Lili, and even on the one night that she allows herself to visit Hans and kiss him, she cannot bring herself to stay. She rushes home, torn and wrecked with her trauma, but also glowing through her tears with her love, a love that will keep her tied to Lili.
The Danish Girl is a paean to the timelessness of an emotion that does not alter when it alteration finds.
Gerda's is a most powerful role, not just because it is played magically well by Alicia Vikander but because it flips the script on conventional definitions of gender and love. Gerda is in love with the person Einar was at one time and the person Lili now is. That person resides not in the gestures of her spouse, which are now delicate, nor in the gait, which is studiously mannered. They reside somewhere deeper, in what we know of as the soul, and Gerda cannot let that soulmate go.
I once asked a transgender friend, what is it about gender that makes some people so uncomfortable in their bodies? Isn't gender so much more than the bodies we are born into? Is being transgender about the body or the mind? If it is the latter, why do the transgender feel the pressing need to embody the opposite sex in order to live their authentic self? Is an effeminate man who calls himself a woman any less of a woman? Is a butch woman who presents as a man any less of a man?
Of course, these are not black and white categories, as my friend was kind enough to explain. A person is who they claim to be, and beyond the binaries, there is a rich world of competing and melding identities. A transgender has their reasons for undergoing transition, or they may simply present as the opposite sex. There are no boundaries in this conversation.
And yet, there is something essentially human about us and our reality that goes beyond gender. As Einar transforms into Lili, Gerda's love for them remains undiminished. Set nearly a hundred years ago, The Danish Girl is a paean to the timelessness of an emotion that does not alter when it alteration finds.
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