This is a case in point of the trailer showing most of the film. But the two questions left remaining – what happens to Gerda and Einar’s marriage when he becomes Lili, and does Lili survive her treatments? – are answered sadly.
I was thinking how well crafted the film was, and how engaging the lead parts – Alicia Vikander is utterly charming and her pain infectious. I wanted the Wegener’s marriage to work, I wanted Einar to find happiness and acceptance as Lili. I was pleased that it seemed to ultimately be more The King’s Speech in tone [director Tom Hooper’s previous film], despite perhaps greater anguish and less laughs… but then, the end came suddenly.
PLOT SPOILER ALERT
I walked out of the cinema, numb, and looked to the net for solace. I was pleased that someone else had not only articulated some of my thoughts but could tell me that this wasn’t quite the true story. I particularly refer to Amy Nicholson’s piece which claims that the biopic formula undermines the real life story.
I’m less concerned about formula – I thought the article would talk about format and turning points – than in the ultimate portrayal. To become Lili, Einar must die; she negates the marriage shared (which was c20 years in real life, not just 6 as in the film). Curtains are drawn across the bed, a veil in every possible way. I had expected and hoped that Gerda and Lili found a way to continue to be together, but that’s not even discussed; when Einar transitions, Gerda is a widow. She doesn’t gain a wife, she loses a husband.
I admire the bisexual stance that sees people first, genders later, and therefore would see that the change in body is less of a radical change in person – for isn’t the point of transitioning becoming physically who you believe yourself to be inside? I have read a few times that Gerda was bisexual. Her paintings suggest it (especially the erotic ones we don’t see in the film) as does the intensified passion when Einar first starts dressing as a woman. Gerda’s modern and bohemian – enough to accept Einar’s true identity as a woman. They at last find friends and a doctor to support them – but only in Lili’s physical creation, not in a gay relationship. It almost felt a bit seesaw: trans up – gay/bi down. It’s odd as that’s not apparently what happened with the Wegeners. And it seems to not be very LGB friendly.
Einar’s draw to becoming female does seem quite exterior, as Amy Nicholson observed. Eddie Redmayne’s performance recalled Billy Crudup’s in Stage Beauty, where the male impersonation of a woman involves high, unassertive voices and dainty stereotypical hand movements which neither actress playing opposite employed. Women aren’t like the drag versions of us; this felt like a theatrical farce of feminity.
The last film about a male to female transsexual I saw was Laurence Anyways, a Canadian French film starring Melville Poupard (how I love his name), and a similar issue – a heterosexual couple faces the transition of the man into another woman. It ran into a decade and 3 hours of screen time, but it wasn’t just the trans factor that sometimes made the couple separate. I couldn’t really see what killed the Wegener’s marriage. I didn’t feel happy that Gerda embarks on a new relationship and Lili, who did find a male partner in life, is not allowed to enjoy her new body in the film. Her identity is never known publically (it was in reality for 20 years). She doesn’t paint as Lili, although she does leave us a diary. We never see the family reaction, who are not in the film at all. Lili and Gera seem quite isolated, save lascivious artists, art dealers and the doctors.
Amy Nicholson comments that the doctors are the baddies of the film – and yes, they are. They radiate (something I don’t support as a cancer treatment), and they nearly lock Einar up as mentally ill – the manual for psychiatric disorders (DSM) has still not fully eradicated transgenderism from its pages. But it’s the kindly, maverick, hero faced professor played by Sebastian Koch who is also ultimately the most damaging of the doctors. None of them seems to have malice; all act out of what they considered professional duty and the patient’s interest. I note how often in the film – and in life – we are urged to seek out doctors when we encounter difficulty, though I often feel they are not the right door to knock on. The supposed good doctor is the one who takes away the life of Lili with intrusive medical procedure and (not clear in the film) an ill judged womb transplant.
I was and am concerned about what intimate parts the doctors were going to make for transwomen. They lacked – and some still do – true knowledge of female anatomy and that the major sexual part of a woman is not simply a passageway, but a whole mostly subterranean network, made for pleasure and not just obvious sex and birth. (From her paintings, Gerda clearly knew!) We see Einar look at himself naked as he is, and then as would like to be, but never a shot or discussion of what women actually have (and Lili acquires) – it is not simply an absence and an inversion. Nor do we ever hear that Lili gains breasts.
I hear that 40 year old actresses were considered for these parts, but those cast – excellent, sympathetic and watchable as they are – are around 30. But they are too young for the trajectory of the story. Lili/Einar was 48 at her death; Eddie Redmanye turned 34 at the film’s release.
So the bohemian effective three-way relation with two actual people is not explored in the film, nor what made this long open minded marriage break down. I was also confused by Lili’s sexuality – does she like other men? The film implies that Gerda can only be with real, actual men whilst for all her ground breaking, Einar wants a husband and children, and to give up her career – for being a woman is a job description in itself.
Apart from the charm of Alicia, the film’s real draw was Copenhagen, which this film has made me want to visit.
But I think the real story would have pushed that 15 cert (which is quite a mild one) and perhaps the wide accidence and award – or is that being mean? – because the truly pioneering story here is untold. I was unsure how a person who died due to being a world first guinea pig is inspiring for the “transsexual movement” as the end title cards state. I am learning more of the couple (or should I say, trio) but I’m feeling increasingly dissatisfied with the film. It felt the Daily Mail-ified, mainstream version, saying that difference leads to loss, not the exploration of an uncommon marriage, or the critique of surgery that this story really ought to be.
I haven’t forgotten Carol – I will review that soon