Tom Hooper’s The Danish Girl was presented in Roy Thompson Hall at the 2015 Toronto International Film Festival. My wife and I were among the 2,630 in the audience. For some time now, cinema has become a primary art form in every country on earth. The visual word has now taken it’s place beside the written word. Even the machines we use to read a book are the same machines we use to view a film.
One of the things that we have lost along the way is the power of watching a film as a community. Millions of people will watch this astonishing movie at home alone, or maybe with a partner, and will miss the drama of being in a theatre with thousands of others experiencing a unique and groundbreaking story for the first time. This is a political loss, as well as an aesthetic and emotional one. Talking about the transgender community is a very different conversation once this film is seen, and talking about it with a community of strangers is even more politically powerful. From my seat, what I observed was the emotional reaction of the men around me. We had spent some time, 90 minutes or more, in the long queue for this movie, complaining about standing in line, talking about Boston and Toronto, and even about children and grandchildren. I do not think that the men in this diverse multicultural audience were anticipating, while waiting in line on a Sunday morning, what they would be experiencing a few hours later.
A young man in the seat in front of me hid his face at the end of the film when the lights came up, unable to control his emotions, still crying as the credits swept by. He quickly found his baseball cap and pulled it tight over his forehead. The man beside me, whose wife did not like watching films and was not present, and who two hours before had been happy to talk about the festival and its films, shook off my own muted look and sigh, still unable to process what had just happened. More than the women in the audience, men’s reactions seemed to have caught them unawares. An Indian man was being comforted by his wife two rows down, his head down, and an older man simply left the theatre to be alone. None of this is possible watching a film on your MacBook. Even the director, Tom Hooper, entering the theatre to begin a discussion of the film, was not immune. He bowed to the standing audience, put his head in his hands, and asked for a minute to compose himself. One almost felt the women in the audience surge to his aid, as their combined voices emitted a soundscape of encouragement. The men felt relieved, as one of their own had exhibited a public acknowledgement of their own grief. We need to start watching films in large cinemas again.
It may be that the grief of the men in the theatre was attached to the possibility of moving from the masculine to the feminine, which might finally allow us to move away from our collective alexithymia. Or it may have been the idea that we would have a partner that would still love and respect us if we actually expressed what we were feeling. Or it may be our own surprise at our empathic and respectful support for a man willing to undergo a risky physical change to become the woman that she surely is.
The film itself starred a cisgendered male actor. This is a general problem in theatre and cinema. Why not have a blind actor play a blind character? Why not have a transgendered actor play a transgendered character? Al Pacino in Scent of a Woman (1992) was lauded for his performance, which I thought paled in comparison to a blind actor playing a blind person in the Iranian film Color of Paradise (1999), directed by Majid Majidi. With Scent of a Woman and Rain Man, those of us familiar with blindness or autism found the characterization awkward and incorrect, spoiling the films. And this may be true here as well. Mr. Hooper, responding to a question from the audience on this point, did refer to his research with a trans man who is also an actor. This seemed a small sample size. One of the specific problems with the film is a lack of a cultural context. How did Einar and Gerda’s 1925-1930 Amsterdam community react to this movement from a man to a woman? Other than one gratuitously violent scene in a park, there was nothing that suggested a broader social awareness.
And yet the film (and its acting) is powerful despite its flaws. The relationship of the couple, two painters, represents our own historic misperceptions of gender, and what that produces in art and in life. Einar (Eddie Redmayne) is publicly lionized (and paid) when male for basically a minimalist landscape repeated over and over again, while his wife Gerda (Alicia Vikander, recently of Ex Machina) paints more complicated portraits that are scorned. When Gerda begins her series of paintings of her husband as a provocative female (Lili), the male hierarchy pays notice, and she is given exhibitions. As Einar slowly moves toward becoming Lili, he gives up painting altogether, preferring to work on becoming a woman as an end in itself. The power struggles of the opposite sex couple give way to acceptance and love, as the deconstruction of Einar leads Gerda toward another kind of relationship with Lili, as well as with her own art and life.
Alicia Vikander is ferocious from her first appearance at the beginning of this film, which is as much a story of her changes as Lili’s. There is a great deal of nuance to her performance, which may be hard to notice in the face of Eddie Redmayne’s Noh-like gesture acquisitions, trying to act as a female acts while acting as a male trying to become a female. Ms. Vikander has to break apart herself with each of her partner’s decisions to move forward to find her authentic self. Gerda's own complicity in Einar’s movement from chrysalis to butterfly haunts her until she begins seeing her actions as a positive and inevitable initiation. Gerda is Einar’s chrysalis. Playing a part well in reaction to another actor seems difficult, more difficult perhaps than playing the part of the central character in the drama.
There is a part of the story involving Einar’s friend, Hans, who becomes Gerda’s friend as well, played by Matthias Schoenaerts, that does not work, except for one brief comic moment. I kept wishing that Hans, always dressed in a series of immaculate suits of the period, would sit down and loosen his tie every once in a while. It was a false note that allowed for logistics of plot development, but detracted from the primary narrative of the couples (Gerda/Einar; Gerda/Lili).
And Mr. Redmayne. What was it about this story that made us weep? Was it the painful process of difference? Was it the embodiment of male and female made manifest? Was it about the courage to take the psychological and physiological risk? Or was it about human possibility?
We all, men and women in the theatre, were able to join in the process. This is acting skill. Whether Einar is posing as a man in a dress, his legs angled out, his neck at an angle, or whether it is Lili as voyeur and student watching behind a glass as a woman moves erotically, Mr. Redmayne draws us to her. We lose our critical factors of judgement. Our neurobiology shifts from that part of our brain that is rational to that part of our brain that feels, that is not rational. This vulnerability, long denied to men, opens us up, exposes us. This is the pain of empathy. And it hurts.
Stephen Duclos, Licensed Family Therapist, AASECT Certified Sex Therapist and Supervisor