Created by: David Ebershoff (novel)
Directed by: Tom Hooper
Written by: Lucinda Coxon
Produced by: Tom Hooper, Anne Harrison, Tim Bevan, Eric Fellner, Gail Mutrux (among others)
Other cast: Eddie Redmayne, Amber Heard, Matthias Schoenaerts, Emerald Fennell, Ben Whishaw
Release date: 22 January 2016 (USA)
Genre: Biography, Drama, Romance
Running time: 1h 59min
A fictitious love story loosely inspired by the lives of Danish artists Lili Elbe and Gerda Wegener. Lili and Gerda's marriage and work evolve as they navigate Lili's groundbreaking journey as a transgender pioneer.
Synopsis (Warning: contains spoilers!)
The film begins with a montage of landscapes. Then we see a painting, which looks just as realistic as the cinematography we have just seen. The artwork is observed by Gerda Wegener (Alicia Vikander). It is revealed that she is attending an art show when a patron comments that Gerda’s work is not as exquisite as her husband’s, the artist of the painting Gerda was admiring. The gallery owner declares Gerda’s husband, Einar Wegener (Eddie Redmayne), to be part of the one percent of gifted Danish talents.
A title card reads that it is the year 1926 in Copenhagen, Denmark. Einar and Gerda walk home from the art show together. She makes fun of the man declaring Einar part of the one percent. A man shouts down at them to be quiet because it’s late at night. They laugh and hurry home.
The next morning, Gerda is painting a man’s portrait. Simultaneously, Einar visits their friend, Oona Paulson (Amber Heard) at her ballet class. He says he wants to give Gerda space to work and his presence would be distracting. At their home, Gerda tells a middle-aged man who she is painting that men tend to be afraid of the gaze of a woman.
Einar is working on a painting of his own, of five trees in the woods, an actual sight in their town. His paintings take much longer to complete than hers, as he is very meticulous at detail. Einar and Gerda are affectionate with each other and they begin to have sex. While she is undressing, he asks her to leave her undergarments on as he finds them beautiful. He caresses her clothes and then they make love.
Gerda is finishing a large portrait of a woman but Oola is supposed to serve as her model and she has not arrived. She asks Einar to wear the stockings and shoes so that she can finish painting that part of the picture. He nervously agrees and she has to educate him on how to put the stockings on. She then has him hold the dress up so that it will flow over the stockings properly. Just then, Oola shows up with flowers. She is delighted at the sight of Einar serving as the model and hands him a lily, telling him that that must be his name.
Gerda meets with an art collector to evaluate her portraits and paintings, including the one with the stockings. He tells her that sketches of people are commonplace and there is nothing unique about them but she is a good artist who just needs a better subject.
When Gerda returns home, she explains the feedback she received to Einar. They begin to kiss and she begins to take off his shirt. Underneath, he is wearing her undergarments. This takes her aback but she doesn’t acknowledge it directly and instead, she simply continues touching him underneath the brassiere he is wearing.
In the morning, Gerda sketches Einar while he sleeps but in an androgynous way so its not clear if the picture is supposed to be of a male or female. When he wakes up, she tells him how beautiful he is.
The next day, Gerda and Einar join Oola for a gathering. Oola tells them that she has had relations with two nearby men at the same time. They are stunned by this and she giggles that its so easy to shock married people. Gerda tells Oola how Einar and her first met when he admired her ankles. He was too shy to ask her out so she did it for him. He was so beautiful that when they kissed, she felt as if she was kissing herself (another woman). This makes Oola blush and Gerda comments that its so easy to shock unmarried people.
There is an event that Gerda and Einar are invited to but he doesn’t want to go because the people gush over him as an artist. Gerda realizes that he can go in disguise, as Lili. Gerda puts makeup on Einar’s face and finds a wig for him. He has transformed and he delights at being able to inhabit the identity of a woman.
They attend the party and everyone is told Einar couldn’t attend but his cousin, “Lili”, has taken his place. Lili is left on his/her own and she catches the eye of Henrik (Ben Whishaw) who is immediately intrigued by “her”. They isolate themselves and Henrik flirts with Lili, who is awkward in response. Henrik tells her a man should always ask a woman before he kisses her and then leans in. She pulls away and says he didn’t ask. But he tells her he didn’t want her to refuse. Gerda walks in and witnesses the two clumsily kissing. Lili begins to have a nosebleed and becomes frightened. Gerda leads her away.
At home, Gerda is confused about what she witnessed. She doesn’t understand why the game they were playing went so far. Einar tries to explain that he didn’t want to kiss Henrik but when he was in the mind of Lili, she did so it was Lili who wanted to, not him. Gerda asks if he has kissed boys before. He says only once, when he was very young with a friend of his. His father saw it happen and got very upset with him.
Gerda now has found her subject: she paints Einar as Lili. When she presents these paintings to the art collector, he loves them and wants to have a show with them. The collector wants to meet the model but Gerda tells him it was Einar’s cousin who has since left town. At home, Einar is wearing Gerda’s undergarments as he looks in the mirror and studies his body. He strips himself bare and then finally removes his trousers. He looks at his penis with disgust and tucks it between his legs.
When Gerda gets home to tell Einar of the praise the collector has given her Lili portraits, she is surprised to see Einar dressed as Lili. She wonders if something is the matter with him and suggests they go see a doctor. They do and the doctor makes notes of the nosebleeds, as well as the stomach cramps he imagines having once a month. Einar tries to explain he has always felt like a girl despite being in a male body.
The next time Gerda meets the art collector, she is told he sold all the paintings and there is representation interested in her in Paris. He encourages her to go and become an esteemed artist in France. Gerda encourages Einar to join her, as she will need Lili as a model for her paintings. The two of them set out to live in Paris.
In France, Einar continues to serve as the model for Gerda’s portraits. They seem to be distancing themselves from each other. While Gerda is out that evening, Einar goes to the seedy part of Paris’ red-light district and enters a peep-show club. He watches a woman strip naked. But instead of being aroused by her, he starts to mimic her movements. She notices this and they do a back and forth game where they mirror each other.
Gerda goes to meet Hans Axgil (Matthias Schoenaerts), a childhood friend of Einar’s. Hans tells someone on the phone he must go because he has a “Danish girl” waiting for him (interesting because the movie’s title alludes to both Lili and Gerda). He tells Gerda he loves her artwork but he cannot represent her because he doesn’t specialize in those kind of paintings. He asks to meet the model and she tells him it is Einar’s cousin but she is not around. However, she tells Axgil that Einar is waiting for them at home though.
When they get to the house, Einar is dressed as Lili. Gerda has to completely backpedal and explain that this is Einar’s cousin and Einar is out. “Lili” brazenly flirts with Hans who is very suspicious. Lili becomes frazzled and runs off. When Gerda comes to join him, he tries to assure himself that Hans has not detected the reality of who he is.
Gerda attends an art show for her Lili paintings. Hans is there and he tries to kiss her, knowing that her husband is a transsexual, but she stops him and tells him, “Einar is still my husband”. Hence sets up a unique love triangle Hans loves Gerda who loves Einar who loves Hans. All of this overwhelms Gerda who leaves the event despite it pouring down rain, refusing an umbrella in lieu of walking down the street. Hans finds her and brings her to shelter.
At home, the three are gathered in the kitchen. Hans reveals to Gerda that he was the childhood friend that had once kissed Einar. Einar was dressed in his grandma’s apron while they were playing pretend. Hans thought Einar looked so pretty, he just had to kiss him. He was then sent home while Einar’s dad violently responded to his son.
Gerda wonders if she has turned Einar into a transsexual when she dressed him up for the event but he tells her he’s felt like that his whole life and she merely gave him the first opportunity to experience it. Because he is still confused about his feelings, Gerda and Einar visit various doctors in Paris in hopes that they will be able to make sense of the situation. The first doctor suggests a lobotomy, telling Einar he will make two holes on each side of his head. The second one tells Einar that his diagnosis is bad that he believes Einar is a homosexual. The third excuses himself during the meeting. When Einar looks at his notes, he sees the man suspects that Einar is a schizophrenic. As the doctor rushes back to the office with a security team and a straitjacket, Einar escapes out a window.
Oola is in Paris and she tells Einar and Gerda about a doctor who has treated a patient with the same situation as Einar. They meet with the doctor who is progressive and tells that he once met a man who believed he should be a woman, so he set to perform two operations the first, to remove his man bits and after he’s recovered his strength, a second, to construct a vagina. But the man got scared and disappeared on the day of the surgery. Excitedly, Einar says that he wouldn’t do that. And he agrees to have what will be the first sex change operation.
Einar is standing in front of a train, to be taken to the hospital where the surgery will be performed. Gerda tells him she will be there for the surgery but he wants to be alone. Hans tells Einar, “I’ve loved only a handful of people and you are definitely two of them.”
Einar is admitted to the hospital. He is giddy with excitement and looks at himself lovingly in the mirror. He then decides not to put his wig on and to instead stylize his own hair in a feminine manner.
On the patio of the hospital, a pregnant woman asks “Lili” if she is there because she is going to have a baby. Lili says maybe someday, not knowing what the limitations will be to the surgery (i.e., if she’ll be able to get pregnant).
The doctor goes over the procedure with Einar/Lili and she glows with anticipation. She tells the doctor she hopes her husband will be handsome like he is and mentions her hope of giving birth. The doctor warns that the surgery will be very brutal but Einar/Lili says she will sleep through it.
The first surgery ends up being just as the doctor predicted brutal. Gerda arrive as a surprise, to support Lili. Although she is drained by the operation, Lili is also enthralled that it was performed. She is given estrogen pills to take every few hours but explicitly told to spread them out throughout the day.
Although the surgery is only half done (Einar/Lili no longer has a penis but doesn’t have a vagina yet), Lili enjoys living her life completely as a woman. Instead of painting, she gets a job as a sales clerk in a local department store. She shares some tips on how to apply perfume to customers, telling them that when she was in Paris, women never applied perfume directly on their skin. They would spray it in the air and then walk into it. This tip is well received.
When Lili walks through a park, two local French men heckle her, calling her a lesbian and asking if she has a “hoo hah”. When cornered, she punches one of them but the other one retaliates by badly beating up Lili.
Gerda runs into Lili in the marketplace, where she is fraternizing with Henrik (the Ben Whishaw character she met when she was first dressed as Lili). Lili visits Gerda’s home and tells her she is not romantically linked to Henrik because he is a homosexual. Gerda tries to encourage Lili to paint alongside her like they used to. But Lili is adamant that she has left Einar behind and no longer wants to do the things she did when she was living as a male. She then takes an estrogen pill, which upsets Gerda because Lili has just taken some ten minutes earlier (the doctor emphasized they have to be taken far apart). Lili defensively states that she knows what she’s doing. Its obvious she wants to rush the process.
Lili arranges to have the second part of her surgery despite Gerda telling her its too early. But the doctor agrees so she returns to the hospital and undergoes the procedure. Both Gerda and Hans are there for support but the doctor tells them the surgery did not gone well and the prognosis does not look good.
Gerda and Hans visit Lili in the recovery room and she looks close to death. Nonetheless, she is happy and tells them, in a weak voice, that she finally feels like who she was meant to be. She adds that God made her a girl but there was some mistake in her physicality.
Gerda takes Lili outside in a wheelchair so he can get out of the hospital room. Even though she is sick, Lili is happy. But despite her bliss, Lili passes away, leaving Gerda distraught.
In the final scene, Hans and Gerda go walking through Denmark and stop at a set of five trees, the ones Einar had been painting early in the film. The scarf that Gerda is wearing blows away in the wind. Hans goes to retrieve it but she tells him to leave it alone. The piece of women’s clothing floats in the sky, above the beautiful landscapes that Einar once painted, symbolizing that Lili was finally free.
- Einar Wegener/Lili Elbe wasn’t the first transgender person nor the first to undergo sex reassignment surgery, she was only among the first. Dora Richter/Dörchen Richter (also known as Dora R., 1891-1933) – who was born as Rudolph Richter, became the first trans woman of whom records remain to undergo vaginoplasty. According to Dr. Felix Abraham, a psychiatrist working at the Institute for Sexual Science, where Dora was employed as a domestic servant, her first step to feminization was made by means of castration in 1922. After this there was a long pause, until the beginning of the year 1931, when the penis amputation was done and in June, the here described surgery – a highly experimental vaginoplasty performed by Dr. Erwin Gohrbandt, who later becomes a decorated surgeon-general in the Luftwaffe. Carla van Crist and Toni Ebel had also got the surgery before Lili arrived in Berlin. The Institute for Sexual Research (founded by Magnus Hirschfeld in Berlin, in 1919), was doing the operations, but the Nazis destroyed the files in 1933 so there is no way of knowing who truly was the first person to undergo sexual reassignment surgery. Lili’s last operations were made by Dr. Kurt Warnekros at the Dresden Women’s Clinic. Her first surgeries (castration and penectomy) had been performed by Dr. Ludwig Levy-Lenz under Hirschfeld’s supervision in Berlin in 1930. These preliminaries have sometimes caused confusion over the date of Lili’s ‘sex change’, but Dora/Dörchen Richter was the first transgender woman who underwent sex reassignment surgery, that began in 1922.
- Alicia Vikander’s Oscar Nomination for Best Actress in a Supporting Role, instead of Leading, was seen by many as a critical category fraud, as her character, Gerda, has more screen time and more dialogue than Eddie Redmayne’s character, Einar/Lili. Vikander has 73:27 minutes of screen time and the percentage of her screen time to the movie length (119 min) is 61.7%. However, Redmayne was nominated for Best Lead Actor at the Academy Awards. Distributor Focus Features decided to campaign for Vikander as supporting actress because they thought it would increase her chances of winning the Oscar. Vikander has refused to comment on the debate.
- Lili consulted two physicians, both whom diagnosed her as homosexual, a third physician diagnosed her as intersexed and claimed she had rudimentary female sex organs. Hormonal assays taken just before her first surgery indicated more female than male hormones present. It is likely that she had XXY sex chromosome karyotype (Klinefelter’s Syndrome) a condition not medically recognized until 1942. The fact that Lili was Intersex is not mentioned in the film.
- The movie is based on the novel The Danish Girl by David Ebershoff, which is a fictionalized account of the life of Einar Wegener/Lili Elbe, not an actual biography like some people think. The author changed so many elements of Einar Wegener’s story that the characters in the book are entirely fictional, no other character in the novel has any relation to an actual person, living or dead. Historical accounts claim that Gerda Wegener was lesbian and that she preferred Lili’s femininity over Einar’s masculinity and that they had an open relationship. Gerda lived openly as lesbian when she lived in Paris with Lili. The love story portrayed in the novel and in this film is fiction, Gerda and Lili didn’t remain close after their marriage was annulled. A more accurate source of information is Lili Elbe’s autobiography, “Man into Woman”. Niels Hoyer is listed as the author, but that is a pseudonym for Ernst Ludwig Hathorn Jacobson, Lili’s editor who assembled her letters, diary entries and dictated material to form the book.
- When Nicole Kidman was set to star and produce the film, she struggled to sustain an actress to portray Gerda Wegener, while she would portray Einar Wegener herself. Charlize Theron was the first choice for Gerda, but dropped out in 2008. Her role was then given to Gwyneth Paltrow, who also dropped out in order to spend more time with her family. Uma Thurman was rumored to replace her. In 2010, Marion Cotillard was considered for the part, as she and Kidman wanted to re-team after working together on Nine (2009), and their other possible project “The Rivals” had been shelved. In 2011, the role was given to Rachel Weisz, who also dropped out soon after. Alicia Vikander took the role in 2014, when Tom Hooper took over the project.
- Lili’s post-transition name was Lili Ilse Elvenes. The name “Lili Elbe” was made up by Copenhagen journalist, Louise (Loulou) Lassen, and is first used in sensationalist Danish newspaper articles as pre-publicity for the publication of the book From Male to Female – Lili Elbe’s Confessions (Fra Mand til Kvinde – Lili Elbe Bekendelser) where many of the myths and inaccuracies about Elvenes’ life story begin.
- The paintings in the film were done by the film’s production designer Eve Stewart and by British artist Susannah Brough. The film’s paintings weren’t exact replicas of Gerda Wegener’s work, they had to be to adapted because they didn’t look like Eddie Redmayne. The original portrait of ballerina Ulla Poulsen, was also altered to resemble Amber Heard’s face.
- The only trans actors in the film have small parts. Trans actress Rebecca Root plays one of Lili’s nurses, and Jake Graf, a transgender man, also plays a small part appearing next to Matthias Schoenaerts at the art gallery during the exhibition of Gerda’s portraits. Jake Graf revealed on his Instagram account on January 5, 2016, that the rest of his scenes with Schoenaerts were consigned to the cutting room floor.
- On February 9, 2016, Alicia Vikander revealed to The New York Times that the filmmakers were obsessed with the fact that she didn’t look Scandinavian. “They paled my skin, to make me lighter. People say that I’m tanned, but that’s my natural color”, Vikander told. Gerda Wegener was a natural blonde and blue-eyed Danish woman with pale skin, while Vikander is a natural brunette with brown eyes and olive skin. Besides lightening her skin, Vikander also had to wear blonde wigs in the film.
- Filming for the 186 scenes took place for a total of 44 days in six countries (England, Denmark, Belgium, Germany, France and Norway). Shooting happened even on Sundays and finished on Easter 2015.
- Filming was set to begin in late 2014. It was pushed to February 2015 to accommodate Alicia Vikander’s schedule. The film premiered at the Venice Film Festival in September 2015, which gave the production seven months to complete it.
- This is Alicia Vikander’s second period piece set in Denmark, the neighbor country of her native Sweden. Her first was A Royal Affair/En kongelig affære (2012).
- The film has been criticized for the casting of a cisgender man to play a trans woman; for being written similarly to forced feminization erotica; obscuring the actual story of a trans person; for being based on a fictional book that doesn’t tell the true story of Einar/Lili and Gerda Wegener, and also for being sold as a biopic of a transgender woman when in fact, the film revolves around a cisgender straight female. Even with so many inaccuracies and so little of the real story of Lili and Gerda, the film is still being marketed as a “true story” of “unconditional love”.
- The Paris scenes were shot in Brussels, Belgium.
Hans Axgil: I’ve only liked a handful of people in my life, and you’ve been two of them.
Einar Wegener: I love you, because you are the only person who made sense of me. And made me, possible.
Einar Wegener: I think Lily’s thoughts, I dream her dreams. She was always there.
Gerda Wegener: I need to see Einar.
Lili Elbe: Let me help, please.
Gerda Wegener: I need my husband, can you get him?
Lili Elbe: I can’t.
Gerda Wegener: I need to talk to my husband, and I need to hold my husband. Can you at least try?
Lili Elbe: I’m sorry.
Hans Axgil: How are you Lili ?
Einar Wegener: Entirely myself.
[last lines: as Gerda’s scarf flows away in the wind]
Gerda Wegener: [to Hans] No, leave it. Let it fly.
Gerda Wegener: We went for coffee, and after… I kissed him. And it was the strangest thing. It was like kissing myself.
Hans Axgil: We were fooling in the kitchen. Einar was wearing his grandmother’s apron… We were just little boys, you know, playing around? Anyway, Einar just looked so pretty and… I had to kiss him! So, yes, I kissed Einar.
Dr. Hexler: Tell me about Lili… Where did she come from?
Einar Wegener: Inside of me.
As of 26 February 2016, The Danish Girl has grossed $11 million in North America and $42.7 million in other territories, for a worldwide total of $53.7 million, against a budget of $15 million.
The film had a limited release in the United States and Canada across four cinemas in New York and Los Angeles on 27 November 2015 before expanding cinemas in December. The film earned $185,000 in its opening weekend, averaging $46,250, which is the sixth-best opening weekend per cinema average of 2015. The opening weekend’s audience was 58% female, and 67% were over 40.
The Danish Girl received generally positive reviews from critics, particularly for its acting and sensitive handling of a difficult subject matter. On Rotten Tomatoes, the film has a rating of 70%, based on 198 reviews, with an average rating of 6.6/10. The consensus reads “The Danish Girl serves as another showcase for Eddie Redmayne’s talent – and poignantly explores thought-provoking themes with a beautifully filmed biopic drama”. On Metacritic, the film has a score of 66 out of 100, based on 40 critics, indicating “generally favorable reviews”.
The film’s acting, particularly that of Redmayne and Vikander in the lead roles, received considerable acclaim, with Marie Asner of Phantom Tollbooth stating that “the acting is what makes this film” and Damien Straker of Impulse Gamer writing that “two commanding performances give it a gripping emotional weight that is very affecting”. Redmayne’s performance was described as “another sterling example of just how deeply he can immerse himself into a role” by Jim Schembri of 3AW, and as “revealing, heartbreaking and believable” by Linda Cook of Quad-City Times.
Kyle Buchanan, writing for Vulture, complained that it was part of a trend of “queer and trans films that are actually about straight people”, while Paul Byrnes for The Sydney Morning Herald said it was “a lost opportunity” in which “the frocks are more convincing than the emotions.”
The film received some criticism for the casting of a cisgender man to play a trans woman. It has also been criticised for being written similarly to forced feminization erotica, obscuring the actual story of a historical trans person, and for being based on a fictional book that does not tell the true story of Lili and Gerda Wegener.
The film has been banned in Qatar on grounds of moral depravity, and also in the United Arab Emirates, Oman, Bahrain, Jordan, Kuwait, and Malaysia.
‘The Danish Girl’ was first presented at the 72nd Venice Film Festival on September 5. Later that month, it was presented at the 2015 Toronto International Film Festival. Alicia attended the premiere on September 12, while the press conference took place on September 13.
On November 21, Alicia attended the Los Angeles premiere of ‘The Danish Girl’. Two days later, on November 23, she attended the Washington premiere. She also attended the London premiere on December 8. On December 10, Alicia attended a photocall and press conference in Berlin – but there was no premiere. On December 16, she attended a New York screening for ‘The Danish Girl’. Lastly, she attended ‘The Danish Girl’ premiere in Copenhagen on February 2, 2016.
Alicia was interviewed on several occasions to promote ‘The Danish Girl’. Indeed, she attended the AOL BUILD Speaker Series in New York City on December 15, followed the same day by the SAG-AFTRA Screening & Q&A of ‘The Danish Girl’. And on December 16, she appeared on ‘The Tonight Show Starring Jimmy Fallon’.
- Roses of Picardy
by Frederick Edward Weatherly (as Frederick E. Weatherly) and Haydn Wood (as Haynd Wood)
Performed by Marie-Christine Desplat (as Marie-Christine “Kiki” Desplat), Sylvette Claudet, Shona Taylor, Nathalie Renault, and Claude Jeantet
Arranged by Marie-Christine Desplat (as Marie-Christine “Kiki” Desplat)
Courtesy of Certains L’Aiment Chaud