Thursday, 21 January 2016

The Battle of Lili Elbe

I knew nothing about the story of The Danish Girl, but when I was asked if I fancied seeing it I said yes without any thought. It was a chance to get out of the house and speak to a human being on the way to and from the cinema!

I used to hate going into the office on a daily basis because I knew I would have to paint a smile on my face and interact with a number of individuals who I found vacuous and irritating! Now I am on a sabbatical from the corporate world, I notice that I don't miss the irritation of being polite to what amounted to two-faced non-entities often declaring "woe is me," but I do sometimes get a little bored talking to the wall each day! I guess this is where Twitter and social media gives you a lifeline to the world, however, many of the irritants that I found in the office I find on social media too, it is an outlet for people to declare publicly that they are feeling sorry for themselves! So the opportunity to speak to a person about fun things and to look at the positive side of life was embraced, so off to the cinema we did go!

Whilst I quite agree that Eddie Redmayne was deserving of an Oscar for The Theory of Everything, I don't think this performance is deserving of one at all. He was OK in the role and brought an empathy to the character, however, it was a far-reaching topic to tackle, and warranted more than coy looks and awkward glances at the floor. This happened throughout the entire film and so there was no depth or change in understanding the character, and this just started to aggravate me if I'm honest. Towards the end of the film I could hear sobbing near me (I just sat there thinking aww that's sad.) If I am totally honest, I felt more for Gerda, Alicia Vikander, who I thought gave a more dramatic performance about the difficulties of coming to terms with the change of gender of her husband.

The film is based on the novel of the same name, but it should be remembered that the novel is a work of fiction, based on the real life of Lili Elbe. As with most fiction, the love story takes over, and there is less about what was going on inside Lili. The battle of her emotions is generalised. To find out Lili's true story we need to look at Man into Woman: The First Sex Change, a book that took Lili's letters, diary entries and incorporated them into a volume explaining the thoughts and feelings held by Lili.

There were points whilst watching the film where I lost any feelings of compassion towards Lili, finding her overtly selfish. There is a scene where Gerda had held an art exhibition and her husband had not gone with her. Her physical and emotional crutch was not by her side and when she went home, she entered the flat, soaked to the skin, to find Lili waiting for her at home. Gerda cries that she needs her husband, she needs Einar, and she is met with the reply that Einar has gone and can not be brought back. This was the point of the film where I should have felt compassion towards Einar/Lili's confliction, but I just wanted to punch him, I was so angry at how selfish he was being, when his wife had gone through so much and had been so supportive of him.

This also got me onto thinking about the part his wife had played in bringing out the character of Lili. Had she encouraged him? Had she brought this on herself? Obviously the feelings Einar had were deep-rooted already, and the pivotal moment of the film is when Gerda's model didn't turn up for her portrait sitting, so Einar dons stockings for the first time. At this point I did find Eddie Redmayne believable, as you can see the various thoughts and emotions going through his mind as he realises he likes the feel of the silk and satin, but also the dawning realisation of what this could mean. It was as if Gerda had flicked on a light switch, but it was now stuck, it could not be turned off again.

At this point I think it is a good point to see what the real life situation was like for Einar and Gerda. Einar wrote "I cannot deny, strange as it may sound, that I enjoyed myself in this disguise. I liked the feel of soft women's clothing. I felt very much at home in them from the first moment." Gerda did feel some sense of responsibility for creating Lili, she said to Einar " I have felt prickings of conscience because I was...the cause of creating Lili, of enticing her out of you, and thus becoming responsible for a disharmony in you which reveals itself most distinctly on those days when Lili does not appear."

Einar and Gerda married in 1904 when they were 22 and 19 respectively. It was in 1930 that Einar acknowledged that Lili had completely taken over him stating "she rebels more vigorously every day." He chose the date 1st May 1930 to commit suicide. After two decades of knowing he was a woman trapped in the body of a man, he could no longer control his feelings, and at a time where people were not compassionate against things they did not understand, he could not foresee living for any longer. A few months before his desired death date he learnt of a doctor in Dresden who may be able to perform transgender surgery on him. The film infers that there were only two operations, one to remove the male genitalia, and a short while later the surgery to finalise his transition to being a full woman. In fact, Einar went through four or five operations during 1930 and 1931. A castration was first carried out, followed by penectomy, a transplant of ovary tissue (many reports say that whilst undertaking surgery, doctors found rudimentary ovaries in Lili's abdomen) and creation of a vagina. The final surgery was the transplanting of a womb as Lili was desperate to have children, and had fallen in love with an art dealer and had planned to remarry. The final surgery however proved fatal, her body rejected the new organ that had been implanted.

And what of Gerda? What happened to her? Gerda had been a leading illustrator of high fashion, and was thought highly of in the fashion magazine industry. Her most popular pictures were of a lady with a brown bob, and it came as a huge surprise to find out that the model was actually her husband. As the scandal broke in Copenhagen that the paintings were actually of a man, Gerda and Einar moved to Paris in 1912 due to the more open-minded society. Gerda's paintings became more and more risque, often painting nude women in sexual poses. These paintings opened up the question as to whether Gerda was a lesbian, and whether this is why she was so accepting of her husbands behaviour. Gerda became a well-known artist in France, but her notoriety came to the attention of the King of Denmark who declared her marriage to Lili Elbe null and void in 1930. Gerda married an Italian officer who squandered all of her money, the couple divorced in 1936. Gerda moved back to Copenhagen dying penniless in 1940.

The real life story perhaps ends more profoundly than that of the poignant ending to the film. The real life characters of Gerdan and Einor/Lili are far more interesting than that which the film depicts. The characters are very one dimensional and we don't get a full insight into their true potential. We see a short scene where Lili has got a job in a department store, and looks so happy and comfortable in this new role. In this short frame we can see why it was so important for Lili to live as Lili, but it was only for a fleeting second. There was far more to Lili than downward fluttering eyes and there was more to Gerda than weeping about her confusion of the situation. Both were strong characters in their own ways, and whilst I enjoyed the film and it allowed me to research their real lives, I think it was only a good film...not a great one.

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