“If a million people see my movie, I hope they see a million different movies.” – Quentin Tarantino
Watching a movie almost four years too late means you are privy to an explosion of opinions, threatening to corrupt your experience. As I sat for a rather late watch of The Danish Girl (released 2015) few days back, I had in mind a period drama on a pioneering event, and its mention in the Oscars couple of years back. It was only as the end credits rolled that I realised what a reductive understanding I’ve had in the beginning. It was, as Tarantino said, a million different movies, spread like stardust in the microcosm that the characters inhabit.
The prospect of defining it would deride its luminosity, which is the effect of a constellation of issues warring for space in the span of two hours. And this ambiguity emerges simultaneously as the point of victory, as well as a glaring fault line, in an otherwise breath-taking narrative.
The Danish Girl opens on a deceptively simple note: we see the artists Einar and Gerda Wegener, and there is the sizzle of a suggestion that one of them is soon to take a plunge. It is Einar, depicted early on as artist par excellence and a misfit in the social cauldron, who teases in the viewer a sense of suspicion. And in the span of a couple of scenes, these suspicions are confirmed.
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Einar realises with a frisson of alarm, that he has been standing on a precipice all his life, and that his true self lies beyond it. He is a woman, tied not only to a man’s body, but also to another individual through the institution of marriage, and to a society he has never really been a part of. To untie these knots, he has to take the plunge, and the one who decides to follow through happens to be Gerda, his wife. That is where the film sees its titular Danish Girl(s): the one who jumps, and the one who supports.
Director Tom Hooper celebrates the pioneering spirit of Lili Elbe, one of the first recipients of sex reassignment surgery, in a moving portrait of a radical in a constricted social order. But what makes it so poignant in the transient world that we inhabit is its vivid exploration of love and companionship in the unlikeliest of circumstances. One that is neither defined nor diminished by the strength or decay of social institutions.
As a married couple, Einar and Gerda share a beautiful bond, punctuated by traces of raw passion, and easy comradeship. Their little games, easy reliance and tacit understanding impart remarkable fluidity, almost a bohemian evanescence to their partnership. They represent the idyll that marriage is supposed to be: a communion of two individuals at the most fundamental level. At one point, Gerda remarks, that kissing Einar felt like ‘kissing [my]self”, a telling allusion to Einar’s later transformation, but also a reassurance that reminds one of the primal passionate love in Bronte’s Wuthering Heights.
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Einar and Gerda: Is love and intimacy fettered by social identity? Or is it way deeper than that?
The ironic fact is that their love is tested only when the institution that binds them begins to disintegrate. It is only when Einar disappears and lets the dormant Lili within him bloom, giving his marriage to Gerda the hardest blow possible, that their limits as lovers are tested. And herein lies one of the most crucial accomplishments of the film. Its portrayal of love as a timeless, ageless metaphor that escapes definition. A love so pure that it exemplifies the highest form of regard and respect that can exist between two souls, and not just bodies. A love so primitive and rooted that it dares to accommodate itself beyond the exigencies of time.
Perhaps that is what Gerda tries to convey to Lili, that albeit she married Einar, her husband, she was perhaps married to Lili all along, because Lili is Einar’s soul, his psyche, trapped in the wrong body.
The Danish Girl braids the leap of faith taken by the two girls that give the film its title. It is as much about the resilience of a girl [Lili] who wants to bloom, by casting off an identity she cannot live with, as it is about a girl [Gerda] who defies convention and stability to catalyse that metamorphosis.
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At the intersection of their lives remains a tiny sliver of faith which manages to redefine the way we interpret human relationships. Faith that forces us to reassess the labels that are so eagerly legitimised in the society. “I love you”, Gerda hears from Einar, a refrain that continues as he transitions to Lili, even as Gerda cannot wrap her head around the fact that her husband is gone without a trace. And this becomes her leap of faith to take. To undo everything that forms the core of her existence, and still be the same individual that she always was.
One can almost argue that the couple’s disillusion, and fixation upon survival in a world that refuses to understand their predicament is a corollary of their deep faith in Lili’s cause. At no point of time, do we see Einar/Lili taking a step alone. Both Einar/Lili and Gerda function as a unit. Even when Gerda knows their marriage has reached a point of no return. And as an individual, it stands to stunt her physical and emotional well-being. But she also realises, with tremendous sadness, that she cannot help but be a companion to who Einar, her husband has become.
For better or for worse, she cannot divorce herself from the fact that her own identity is being shaken, as is her career move to paint the woman her husband has become. Her self-negation is her leap of faith. “Everything will be fine”, she says, even as she desperately needs Einar’s hands to hold her.
Gerda and Lili: A story that redefines how we look at the notions of ‘love’ and ‘intimacy.’
It is slightly shocking, now that I think of it, that in a period piece (the film is based in mid-1920s Copenhagen) based on transgender issues, that too as visually opulent and structurally tight it is, one can find resonances of a remarkably modern and original take on the institution of marriage. The narrative is also an understanding of human psyche through the dynamics of power operating in social circles, as it is an intimate study of what makes an individual, and whether the concept of an identity is as cogent as we would like it to be.
The more I shuffle, the more insistent and multifarious voices give way to nuances having terrific contemporary underpinnings. The inability to extricate the interweaving micro-narratives from each other becomes manifest. And it becomes clearer that the film’s forte is its resistance against genrefication.
This brings us to the question of critical readings and popular perception. I hark back to the way critical attention has singled out various dimensions from the movie, holding them under torchlight for scrutiny. For instance, the lack of an incisive eye that a film based on transgender issues should employ has been argued. And it isn’t difficult to see that the theme has indeed been sanitised to an extent.
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Gerda’s unconventional character as a strikingly modern woman for her times, has to follow the clichéd plotline of the supporting wife, which raised questions on her rights as a woman. These, and several other issues have been problematized, and their legitimacy cannot be dissipated easily.
But does that take away the cinematic essence of the film? Not really. 4 years down the line, The Danish Girl remains a movie best described as an oblique paean to possibilities. To delineate it as either the soliloquy of an individual trying to let a suppressed identity bloom, or a fluid study of the institution called marriage, or simply a dazzling take on human relationships sans labels, is to downplay its narrative potential. Its very restrictions allow it to tease the viewer into several directions all at once; and bring him back and forth from the cinematic universe to his own.
As the viewer peeks into the several arches that the narrative offers, he goes on a serendipitous search. This climactic search for hope, is what truly defines the movie, and becomes its symbol of triumph.
By Deblina Rout
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