Long before Caitlyn Jenner, Renée Richards, Jan Morris, or Christine Jorgensen, there was Lili Elbe, née Einar Wegener. Einar, a respected Danish landscape painter who began living as Lili in the 1920s, was one of the first people to undergo gender reassignment surgery.
Lili (Eddie Redmayne) is the title character of The Danish Girl, which explores both Einar’s and Lili’s — the film treats them as quite separate people, in accordance with Lili’s preference — relationships with Einar’s wife, Gerda (Alicia Vikander), another artist. Gerda is, in fact, the first character we meet: She’s in her studio working on a portrait of a middle-aged man who fidgets as she paints. Gerda, rather than fulfilling her womanly duty by soothing his discomfort, names it — it arises, she says, from his lack of experience with being the object of the woman’s attention; his usual privileged position as the one doing the looking has been usurped.
Holding up a mirror to the male gaze
This reversal of attentional direction is director Tom Hooper’s main theme: He is exploring the implications of the substitution of a female gaze for the male gaze, which is as dominant now as it was in the 1920s. Lili is created through Gerda’s gaze: She first emerges when Gerda asks Einar to don silk stockings and envelop himself in a tulle skirt to substitute for a no-show model. Dubbed “Lili” by a pal, Einar dons her clothing and her persona more and more often, and Lili becomes Gerda’s muse. The latter’s career as a fine artist takes off once she takes Lili as her subject, and she draws and paints her repeatedly, obsessively, as Lili emerges more thoroughly and more regularly.
Both Einar and Lili are doing some gazing of their own. In one poignant scene, Einar visits a peep show, scrutinizing and imitating the movements of the woman on display; as Lili, she studies herself in the mirror, practicing expressions and gestures, most of them coy. Obviously, no one in the 1920s is going to have a particularly sophisticated take on gender performance, but both Einar’s and Lili’s focus on the superficial tropes of femininity means that Lili’s expression of femininity is equally superficial. As a result, both of these characters are presented two-dimensionally: We get no real sense of what motivates either of them.
Épater la bourgeoisie
The most complex of the main characters is Gerda, whose struggles to deal with her husband’s gradual disappearance are at the emotional heart of the narrative. Her marriage to Einar is presented as a slightly bohemian version of a traditional heterosexual pairing. Her involvement with Lili begins as a lark, acted out both publicly (taking Lili to a party) and privately (when Einar first reveals that he’s wearing Gerda’s lingerie under his clothing, she reacts by pulling him into bed). This is portrayed as being partly her artist’s Épater la bourgeoisie attitude, partly her deep love for Einar and desire to help him become what he wants — and partly the working out of her artistic obsession with Lili as a model. But that involvement, whatever its components, is crucial to Lili’s transformation: “You made me beautiful,” Lili says to Gerda on the eve of one of her surgeries, “now you make me strong.”
Though Lili thus verbally acknowledges her obligation to Gerda, she continues to operate with Einar’s sense of male privilege. She wants what she wants, and sees no reason to explain — to Gerda, or, for that matter, to us, gazing from the darkened theater, hoping to become engaged in her story — what she wants or why she wants it. She definitely doesn’t recognize Gerda’s needs, let alone make any particular effort to accommodate them, and in that way she continues to operate with a level of unconscious entitlement that would be utterly foreign to a woman of that era.
What “really” happened
Of course, it’s not entirely fair to critique gender performances of 80 or 90 years ago through the filter of modern theory — except that those performances are being reenacted by modern actors, based on the script of a modern writer, under the guidance of a modern director. Complicating things further is the fact that the story is, at least to some extent, based on actual events, or at least real people, so there is some expectation on the part of the audience that the events shown on film have some connection with what “really” happened.
The source material for Lucinda Coxon’s screenplay, however, was not a biography or other factual source, but David Ebershoff’s 2000 novel of the same name. In that novel, Ebershoff says in his afterword, he “does not try to tell a true story. He has not only imagined most of what he writes about Wegener's inner life, but he has also fabricated all of the other characters in the book,” including Wegener’s wife, Greta, who in the novel is American-born — and who becomes, according to New York Times reviewer Richard Bernstein, “a wonderfully successful character, more so in many ways than Einar.”
Screenwriter Coxon restored Einar’s wife to her Danish-born identity as Gerda, but otherwise hewed more closely to Ebershoff’s character than to that character’s inspiration — and there were some significant differences between the two. To start, the movie portrays a strong sexual bond between Einar and Gerda. In fact, there is evidence — including, but not limited to, Gerda’s successful pre-Lili career as an illustrator of lesbian-themed erotica — that Gerda was not uncomplicatedly heterosexual. Regardless of her preferences, though, she was no longer married to Einar (or Lili) at the time of Lili’s surgery, and in fact was remarried and living in Italy when it took place. (See more on the “tragic true story” here.)
These changes serve to simplify a complicated narrative — something that is, of course, common (and often necessary) in film adaptations. By rearranging that narrative into conventional “woman stands by her man [sic]” tropes, though, the filmmakers can do something far more radical: Proclaim the power of the female gaze.
Author’s note: The Danish Girl was David Ebershoff’s first novel. Ebershoff is clearly fascinated with women in complicated marriages: He also wrote the excellent 2009 novel The 19th Wife, about one of Brigham Young’s plural wives. I have read — and recommend — the latter, but not the former.