Feminine Gestures and The Danish Girl
What is a feminine gesture? Can it be captured on screen, rendered palpable via content, form, style? Tom Hooper's The Danish Girl (2015) attempts to provide a response to these questions. While gestures abound within the film, there is something that seems calculatedly 'feminine' in an early close-up of a hand. A set of fluid and repetitive movements are captured in the grandness of a cinematic close-up. It is quite a magical shot. We see three fingers delicately grazing the hem of a dress. The camera lingers as each finger seems to memorise the texture and feel of the fabric. This is a fingertip caress, matched by the caress of a camera. But what about it is feminine? Is it the gentle framing of the shot? Or perhaps the subtle movement within it? Perhaps it seems feminine only in the a particular context. The fingers in question belong to Lili Elbe, film's protagonist. Elbe was a historically significant trans woman and one of the first recipients of a range of reassignment surgeries in Berlin during the 1930s. Set throughout Europe from the mid-1920s onwards, and inspired by true events, The Danish Girl follows some of her life.
The film stars Eddie Redmayne as Elbe, although she begins the film as Einar Wegener, a Danish landscape painter. We see shots of Einar before and after the fingertip caress. Described as having a "certain gender fluidity,"1 Redmayne's on-screen presence is marked by his soft features and slight frame. To date, he has received both criticism and acclaim for his highly mannered performance of Elbe. While he has been praised for his preparation for the role2 and his sincere performance3, he has faced criticism for perpetuating a range of clichés4 and, more vocally, for being a cisgender actor in a trans role5. At the core of this is the valid argument that trans actors face discrimination and have few job opportunities, so when cisgender actors are cast in trans roles, trans actors are deprived of work and the trans community misses out on important self-representation. While acknowledging some of these issues, Hooper has relentlessly affirmed his decision to cast Redmayne in this role. Why? Because Redmayne's star power is associated with his capacity for corporeal transformation. His equally controversial role as Stephen Hawking in The Theory of Everything (James Marsh, 2014) is a testament to this6. A digression: I will surely go mad if I have to read another article about how Eddie Redmayne transformed himself for X role.
In one of his many interviews about the process of transforming himself for this role, Redmayne prompts us to think about femininity and feminine gesture. He evokes an (imagined) adolescent girl's discovery of femininity to suggest that some gestures are representative of authenticity while others are false, inauthentic markers, stating:
It's like a hyper-feminisation which leads to using too much makeup, wearing the wrong clothes that you think are ultra-feminine, and walking with too much hips.7
Of course, in both this interview and the film proper, authentic femininity is dominantly perceived as gentle and demure. However, Redmayne's inclusion as the film's protagonist allows The Danish Girl to weave together several layers of performance, teasing out some of these ideas. Initially, we are introduced to the quiet bohemian painter, Einar. Little by little, as the film progresses, Einar becomes Lili and eventually the Einar persona disappears from Lili's psyche. For better or for worse, these narrative moves encourage the audience to recognise Redmayne as a cisgender man and marvel at his/Einar's transformation. In short, audiences are encouraged to recognise Redmayne performing Einar, performing Lili. Such recognition makes spectacle of Redmayne's mastery of feminine gesture. Early on in the film, Einar helps his wife Gerda (Alicia Vikander) by modelling for an incomplete portrait of a female dancer. Sitting next to an almost life-sized image of a slender ballerina, Einar pulls on a pair of stockings and attempts to squeeze his feet into a pair of shoes. The canvas and Einar each take up half of the frame; they are contrasted as unfinished portraits of women.
Later in the same scene, Gerda requests that Einar model wearing the dress shown in the painting. Einar refuses, but Gerda insists, holding it against his slender frame. "The sooner I start, the sooner I finish," she says, as the camera captures a low angle shot of Einar's body. For a moment everything is out of focus bar a small section of his leg. A few coarse hairs sprout through the silk stockings. Einar's fingers gently slide along the fabric before the image cuts back to his face: a close-up, in profile. He looks down at his body within the dress and it is here that we see Lili for the first time. A shimmer of a smile cracks through the Einar facade. This is not a stable, comfortable smile. It's more like a hidden look of recognition, like joy flickering with fear. Moments later, it is gone. This flickering smile portrayed via Redmayne's pained eyes and quivering lip comes to characterise Elbe throughout the rest of the film. Forget the fingertips grazing the beautiful fabric. This is the film's feminine gesture. This is the spectacle of Redmayne's corporeal transformation. A smile, at once bold and shy, unstable but visible, wanting to be seen, wanting to be recognised, fearful, sad, beautiful.