The Female Gaze – The Danish Girl: A Movie Review

The Female Gaze – The Danish Girl: A Movie Review


Howard Adelman

Last night, I came home from watching The Danish Girl in a quite troubled state. Let me say at the start that my mental turbulence had nothing to do with a film telling the story of the first person to undergo a sex operation in Germany in the early nineteen thirties. It is worth seeing the movie for that alone, but the acting is absolutely brilliant, certainly on the part of Eddie Redmayne (he won an Oscar last year for playing Stephen Hawking in The Theory of Everything). He plays the landscape artist, Einer Wegener, who undergoes the operation to become Lili Elbe with such sensitivity that it defies one’s imagination. Eddie is absolutely magnificent.

Alicia Vikander (Kitty in Anna Karenina, Queen Catherine Mathilde in A Royal Affair – which I have not seen but will now do so ASAP – Vera Brittain, the mother of Shirley Williams, in Testament to Youth, Ava the robot who conveys a total sense of otherness, but also an agent beginning to be in charge of her own life in Ex Machina) plays Einer Wegender’s portrait artist wife, Gerda Wegener, in The Danish Girl. Alicia is both an extremely beautiful Swede as well as an actress who can express more with just her eyes than anyone else in film today.

This year there are just too many actors deserving to win academy awards. In the movie, A Danish Girl, Alicia plays a role that demands full self expression and the strict discipline and pain of a stoic who holds everything in. Her best friend in the movie is a ballerina in the Danish Royal Ballet. As Gerda Wegender, Alicia paints ballerinas, particularly her husband dressed as a ballerina, like someone who fully understands the paradox of combining strict discipline with the greatest bodily expression. She is a wonder to behold and it is no surprise to learn that she was trained as a ballerina herself in the Swedish Royal Ballet School. So The Danish Girl is a movie of art expressing real life which is lived as itself an exercise in art, self-reflection and self creation.

But it is not the acting on which I want to focus. I want my readers to help me resolve several of the dilemmas that really bothered me. One I believe I easily resolved concerned the title. Why was the film called, The Danish Girl? The biographical fictional novelist adaptation of the tale by David Ebershoff had a title that troubled me in a different way. The story focuses most of the time on the emotional turmoil that Gerda Wegener goes through as she responds to the different stages her husband transits. Those stages culminate in the desire, and the enactment of that desire, in a gender change operation. Gerda is an American woman. Yet the book that focuses on her is called, The Danish Woman.

The movie, on the other hand, has an intense focus on Einer Wegener/Lili Elbe. But then why not call the film, The Danish Woman? There is only one slight reference to Einer’s youth when he first had a glimpse of his self-identity as a girl. But the film is not about the development of that child as he transforms himself before our very eyes into a girl. The film starts with a portrait of two artists extremely in love with one another and mutually supportive. So why is the movie not titled, The Danish Woman and not The Danish Girl since it all takes place when the two leads are in their late twenties and early thirties?

My guess, and it is almost certainly a wrong guess, is that we, in the audience, watch as the inner girl, awkward at first, more like a thirteen-year-old, coyly emerges in an initially male exterior. So the film itself is really about the development of the girl within, even if the male body may be thirty or so. It is about how a girl learns the gestures, the bodily language, that makes her into a woman.

The movie is all about the corporeal when it comes to Einer Wegender/Lili Elbe. It is all about the soul when it comes to Einer’s wife, Gerda. He creates his female persona through performance; the actual physical operation to transform him into her is post climatic and almost irrelevant. Alicia creates the life of an emerging great artist at the same time as her most intimate relationship disintegrates in front of her.

But there are two other problems that I could not resolve to my personal satisfaction. The first concerns “the female gaze.” The second concerns “narcissism.” Very near the beginning of the film, Gerda Wegener is painting the portrait of an upper middle class bourgeois gentleman who is posing as she paints the canvas. Gerda senses the man’s discomfort and says to the portrait sitter that she understands his discomfort, “It is hard for a man to be looked at by a woman.” It is hard for a man to submit to a woman’s gaze as the portrait sitter gets even more uncomfortable as she smokes her cigarette with a long cigarette holder that she flaunts like a sword. She is the one in charge.

My eldest daughter is a painter. She taught me a bit about the female gaze when she did graduate work at the Ontario Institute for Studies in Education and was immersed in the feminist literature of the time. I know that the concept of the female gaze emerged in the seventies in the academic literature. So it is disconcerting to hear a reference to it in a movie set in the twenties and early thirties first in Copenhagen and then in Paris. Why the female gaze when the movie is about eyes that express every subtlety of emotion rather than a singular focus on the other as an object?

My eldest daughter is a pop surrealist painter. The female gaze is a counter point to the concept of the male gaze. (Read Laura Mulvey’s 1975 essay; she exemplified this theme in her discussion of post WWII films.) In the conception of the female gaze, art, and pop culture more generally, are understood historically as the expression, not conscious or otherwise intentional, of the male perspective on the world, whether it comes to painting or to contemporary films. So that when that gaze becomes fully self conscious, we get its parody as in the series, Sex and the City which I could not stand to watch. If the TV shows were about analyzing the male gaze rather than exhibiting it through the eyes of women, then I would not experience such misogynist hatred.

When the male gaze is pre-eminent, our sensibilities are aroused simply by looking on, by perceiving the woman as an object. There is not one instance in this movie where I could detect the male gaze even when there was a scene in which men are portrayed as looking at women. In those few scenes that try to portray that contrast, the movie just does not work for me. It does work when Alicia as Gerda portrays looking at her husband with a male gaze for we realize that what she loves so much in her husband is his femininity but cannot learn to accept her husband as a physical female with the soud of a male in her real life. That is, or should have been, the heart of the movie.

The male gaze is about dominance. As the female girl emerges and grows in Eider, Alicia as Gerda is torn between what she deeply loves and her socialization as a female sensitively attuned to the male gaze and deeply desiring to master it, which she does, but at great cost to her personal life. The sacrifice is supposedly about Einer’s transformation – more about that soon enough – but it is really most deeply about Gerda’s. This is a movie truly about women seen from a female perspective even when the lead role of the woman is played by a character who has embraced a male perspective, but only becomes a great artist when she reveals the contradiction in the two perspectives in her own art and it then becomes recognized by the greater public. The film inadequately focuses on this, the more important, transformation. The movie is too caught up in and trapped by the male gaze even as it tries to escape its entrapment.

Jean Paul Sartre in Being and Nothingness depicted men as coming to know themselves truly only when, in interaction with others, they came to realize that they were the objects of the other’s gaze and not agents in their own right. For Sartre, there are never any subject-to-subject encounters, only subject-object ones or their inversion. For humans are never Kantian self-determining agents expressing their personal freedom. That is merely the conceit of the male gaze. But Sartre never escapes that male gaze, only magnifies it for our self-understanding as the dominant phenomenology of history.

Martin Buber, on the other hand, in I and Thou, brought to the fore the female gaze inherent in Jewish thought where the woman is truly predominant in spite of the social predominance of the male. In such an existential phenomenology, the core experience is not one self gazing at another as an object, but one agent interacting with the subjectivity of another. This is what Gerda does, struggle between her feminine self that loves and identifies with her husband’s struggle, and the persona she developed as a female artist who mastered the male gaze, but remained an unsuccessful artist until she began to surrender that insistence on male mastery. Intersubjectivity is the key, not subject-object relations. Distancing and interconnecting offer the key dialectic and dialogical insight into life. Emmanuel Levinas has made his brilliant philosophical career enlarging on this insight.

In my experience of the film, the problem is not so much that the male gaze and the female gaze never come together – they certainly do not – but that the film never resolves its focus on whether it is about the male gaze or the female gaze, whether the object of wonderment is Eider/Lili who transforms himself from a male with a feminine gaze into a female with a male gaze, or Gerda who never resolves the tension in her soul. I wanted to experience more of Gerda and felt deeply dissatisfied. The director, Tom Hooper, introduces that element as a secondary plot, but without the self-consciousness to fully realize the experience. He surrenders to his own male gaze and leaves the audience, I believe, totally frustrated.

With a gaze one looks intently, without wavering, fixated on the other as an object. Eider gradually emerges as physically a woman, but as one who sacrifices his male feminine gaze to become obsessed and fixated with a steely determination on himself as a woman, but as a woman insensitive to the pain he/she is inflicting on his wife as he murders the female/male within himself to emerge from his cocoon as a fully realized female physiognomy but with a male soul.

Jacques Lacan, the psychoanalyst French philosopher, wrote about how the subject loses, not gains in autonomy as in Immanuel Kant, by seeing oneself as a visible physical object. And that is precisely what happens to Einer – he loses his autonomy, his identity as a subject, when he turns himself into a female object and betrays the feminine side of his soul. Only I am pretty sure this happens in spite of the director’s gaze and not with the director’s gaze as an assist. But, as I said, I feel very unsure of this conclusion. But it is a Sartrean movie because it is about a self who turns himself into an object in his own gaze as we see scene after scene of Einer imitating women’s gestures and poses as he/she watches him/herself in the mirror. Tom Hooper would have done well to have read Jacques Derrida or Michel Foucault’s Discipline and Punish to become much more self-conscious of what the story was really about.

I wonder how the film would have emerged if it had been directed by a woman, such as Jane Campion, with such an exquisite sensibility. I wonder how the film would have emerged with a different cinematographer than Danny Cohen, who is terrific in giving the sense of Einer’s obsession with the miniscule details of the landscapes of his youth that turned the movie into a painterly expression of natural objectivity, but never quite captures the inner turmoil of the wrestling match really underway in both Gerda and Einer/Lili. For the movie gets progressively less sensual and less sexual and less truly physical as it progresses towards its clinical ending, but at the cost of Gerda’s turmoil, which I thought was the real story.

Einer when he becomes Lili becomes an object of pain rather than someone deeply experiencing that pain. It is as if in becoming the corporeal body of a female, Einer had lost his female soul when wrapped in a male’s body. What would the film have looked like if there had been more lower angle shots and less high angular ones looking down on the action, so that the power within wrestling with the corporal self could be more fully realized, expressed and viewed? I would like to see the movie over again just to follow the shifts in the camera angles.

Which tales me to the other dilemma I had about the film – its narcissism. For that turned me off. The film becomes so preoccupied, as only the male gaze can be, with Einer’s obsession with Lili, with Einer actually transforming himself into someone who looks upon the world with a male vision so deeply in love with himself that he, as he becomes she, loses and deliberately sacrifices his female side and his relationship with Gerda, who remains true to him and their love for one another in spite of Lili’s betrayal.

The problem with the film, for me, was that it was mostly about narcissism, about an obsessive interest in one’s own physical appearance as scene after scene shows Einer gazing at himself and gazing at an other to practice his physical self-transformation. The self-absorption is so dominant in the movie that one cannot escape its embrace. Einer, in spite of his hesitancy, in spite of his self doubts, in spite of his trepidation, becomes more and more extreme in his selfishness, more and more indifferent to Gerda’s loss when he/she murders the female/male within. How could Einer/Lili be so indifferent to Gerda’s suffering as he/she tries to make himself into an object of a male’s gaze? He is so insensitive to her suffering that it literally drove me crazy.

It is not as if Einer was transforming himself into Donald Trump with a narcissistic personality disorder of the giant variety. Einer never becomes conceited, never becomes boastful like a carnival barker, never becomes obsessed with monopolizing conversations and the attention of the world, never becomes someone possessed with a sense of entitlement that the highest office in the land exists so that he could assume it, Einer/Lili never becomes pretentious even as he becomes a she who is deeply a he. But Einer also never comes to realize how much of a pretence and a love of pretence comes to define his life. The film is one of megalomania written on the intimate scale of a personal relationship rather than on a world stage.

Becoming Lili takes on an exaggerated importance and obsession so that Einer is willing to sacrifice both his artistic career and his deep love for his wife just to become Lili. He is truly sick even as the film portrays Einer as a female caught in a male body when he tries to release the male within in the form of a female body. Einer wants to be admired as Lili rather than loved as Einer. He is one sick dude, but the film conveys the sensibility that he has this trouble because society does not understand the conflicted state of a transgendered being. But the real story is not about the acceptance of a transgendered self, but about the sacrifice of an empathetic self in the cause of pursuing the physiognomy of a female acceptable to the male gaze.

The movie in the end is a betrayal of the feminist revolution that had dominated the last half century. That is what I cried about when I watched The Danish Girl.



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