Consuming Transgender for Oscar

First, I want to thank Greggor Mattson for this title.

Second, here’s my review for The Danish Girl, a wonderful novel turned into a problematic film.

The Danish Girl
Directed by Tom Hooper
Written by Lucinda Coxon
Starring Eddie Redmayne, Alicia Vikander, and Matthias Schoenaerts
Rated R

From the moment it was announced 15 years ago, the film adaptation of The Danish Girl, David Ebershoff’s acclaimed literary novel about one of the first men to have sex reassignment surgery, was a prestige project, a magnet for Oscars. For 15 years, artists of the caliber of Nicole Kidman, Marion Cotillard, Lasse Halstrom, and Neil Labute circled the film adaptation. Finally, the film was made. Last year’s Best Actor winner Eddie Redmayne was cast as Einar Wegener who would become Lili Elbe. The acclaimed Swedish actress Alicia Vikander is Einar’s wife Gerda. Oscar-winning director of The King’s Speech Tom Hooper would direct. I can imagine the attraction: Redmayne would get to portray the opposite gender in period dress; Vikander could show us her heart break while she remaining tough and determined; Hooper could mix a zeitgeisty social issue with a tragic love story and make it all look beautiful, refined, and important. I always find something a bit distasteful about making profit and reputations off the aestheticized suffering of others, but sometimes the art is powerful, interesting, or inspiring enough that I don’t mind the artists’ prizes. But I minded The Danish Girl.

In the early 1920s in Copenhagen, Einar and Gerda Wegener are young painters; Einar paints landscapes and Gerda does portraits. He is successful and initially, despite seeming to have a greater talent, she is not. One day, Gerda asks Einar to model women’s shoes and stockings when the actual model is late for a sitting; when the model arrives, she deems Einar-in-drag “Lili” and they all giggle. Continuing the joke, Einar brings back Lili, and Gerda paints her, and these paintings finally get art dealers to notice her. But Einar begins to prefer being Lili, and after they move to the more permissive Paris, Einar begins to disappear. As Gerda drifts between mortified and mystified, she befriends Einar’s oldest friend Hans (Matthias Schoenaerts), with whom Einar had a vaguely homoerotic childhood relationship. Einar/Lili attempts to find a cure, meeting with psychiatrists of various levels of sadism, and then meets a doctor who doesn’t want to cure Einar but rather turn him, through what we now call sex reassignment surgery, fully into Lili. But in the late 1920s, such surgery had never been done and no one had yet discovered antibiotics.

Ebershoff’s novel is a postmodern rewrite of the real life of Einar Wegener, whose diaries were a sensation in the Europe in the early 1930s. Ebershoff kept the outline of Einar/Lili’s story, but imagined Einar and Lili’s interior life, and he turned the real Gerda into a fictional Greta, making her a rebellious, iconoclastic American expatriate. But in Hooper’s film, written by Lucinda Coxon, Gerda returns to her Danish roots, though now she’s a proto-feminist. Clearly, a decision was made to tell a more “true” story, which would make the film’s prestige an easier sell. However, the real Gerda was bisexual and this version is heterosexual. The actual surgeries Lili was given are also changed, as is who did them, and perhaps more irritating to me, the circumstances of Lili’s death. While Lili’s transgenderism was groundbreaking, daring, subversive, and famous, the Lili in Hooper’s film is a lonely tragic figure, as if she were a Victorian heroine suffering oh-so-dramatically from consumption.

Hooper’s film is beautifully shot, and both Redmayne and Vikander’s performances are worthy of the Oscar nominations they’ll probably receive. But in turning Lili and Greta’s messy lives into a tear-jerking love story, a cliché of historical drama, and a story of the victimized minority Hooper and Coxon have done a disservice to the zeitgeisty social issue they hope to hijack: They transform Lili and Greta into a consumer product hoping to be emblazoned with a sticker that says “Oscar winner!” In a year that the brave and authentic Tangerine gave us the story of two transgender women surviving the streets of Los Angeles, when Caitlyn Jenner’s politics are more debated than her transition, The Danish Girl feels like it belongs to another era when pity passed for activism.

(Full disclosure: David Ebershoff, who wrote the novel the film is based on, is a friend of mine. The book suffers from none of the film’s problems. I am, of course, biased. But comparing, say, Ebershoff’s controlled, calm, almost sublime ending with Hooper’s maudlin one is really all one needs to see.)

The Breathtaking Laurence, Anyways


One of the first movies I reviewed for San Diego LGBT Weekly was Heartbeats, a stunningly beautiful update of Jules & Jim made by queer Quebecois wunderkind Xavier Dolan. It lasted in San Diego for about a week; I am still the only person I know who has seen it. His next movie Laurence, Anyways won awards at festivals all over the world, including Un Certain Regard Best Actress at Cannes and Best Canadian Feature at the Toronto Film Festival. And yet it never made it to San Diego, or anywhere else in the United States besides New York and Los Angeles. It is now on DVD and On Demand, which is how I watched it, in awe, breathless, and finally in tears, not only because of its bittersweet ending but also for its visual, aural, and thematic splendor. Xavier Dolan is one of the world’s great directors, and outside of Canada and France, almost no one knows who he is. And the guy is only 24.

Laurence, Anyways is the story of lovers Laurence and Fred (short for Frederique) over ten years, from 1989 to 1999, as they weather Laurence’s transition from man to woman. Unlike some of the best-known transgender film narratives, like Boys Don’t Cry and TransAmerica, Laurence, Anyways isn’t simply focused on acceptance, discrimination, and honesty, but rather on the enormously complex and painful ramifications of the transition on relationships. Laurence and Fred are still in love, even after Laurence reveals that he has always been a woman trapped in a man’s body. But Fred does not know how to be in love with a woman, and Laurence doesn’t know how to stay being a man to be with her.

My initial description of Laurence, Anyways was that it seemed to be a transgender The Way We Were. But the latter film was designed to appeal to a mass audience: huge movie stars, risk-less filming, easy emotions. While I’m sure Dolan wants his films to be seen by millions, he clearly is uninterested in pandering to them. His screenplays require work from the audience, with the kind of spoken and obvious verbal exposition (“I had an affair”) left out in favor of expressionistic tableaus set to iconic songs. In one turning point, Fred wears a lace ball gown and literally floats through a glam rock black tie party while Visage’s New Wave classic “Fade to Grey” plays. At another, Laurence and his mother are barely visible silently talking under an umbrella, the sound and sight of symbolic pouring rain dominating the shot. I was watching the film on DVD and rewatched several of these scenes, muttering “Oh, my God” over and over.

Still, none of Dolan’s visual flairs could work very well without actors as brave and raw as Melvil Poupaud (Laurence), Suzanne Clement (Fred), and Nathalie Baye (Laurence’s mother). Poupaud who is handsome both as man and a woman does the requisite slow transition from masculine to feminine fretfully, subtly, and then finally confidently. His turns as ashamed, impish, despairing, furious, and enamored are all equally nuanced, sympathetic, and believable. Clement is a much more bombastic actress; her Fred feels everything without control or modulation. Dolan shows her rage and sorrow and glee with quick, kaleidoscopic cuts. The scenes sometimes seem like cubist depictions of emotions. Clement’s performance is the emotional heart of the film, as her love for Laurence is much easier to depict and understand than Laurence’s need to be a woman. That need is confusing for many characters, not just Fred, but also Laurence’s mother, a profoundly cold woman who provided little to her son until he became her daughter.

The movie is long – two hours and 45 minutes – and in that space, I think Dolan and Poupaud make a few missteps, mostly in communicating Laurence’s impetus to decide to transition. This could have been glossed by wordy exposition, but that’s not what Dolan does. And thank God, because what he does do is so extraordinary.

Laurence, Anyways
Written and Directed by Xavier Dolan
Starring Melvil Poupaud, Suzanne Clement, and Nathalie Baye
On Demand and on DVD

Close to the vest

I’ve long had a weird obsession with Glenn Close. Albert Nobbs is the best work she’s done on film in 20 years. Here’s my review, also found here.

A few weeks ago, I pointed out that 2011 was a great year for queer cinema because of Heartbeats, Weekend, and most recently Pariah. And there’s a fourth film, which is now just opening in San Diego:Albert Nobbs, a period drama about what we would now call transgenderism starring Glenn Close in her best performance in nearly a quarter century. Close not only stars in the film, reprising a role she performed Off-Broadway in 1982, but she also co-wrote the script, the original song and she produced the movie. If you’re trying to see all of the Oscar bait movies before the big show in March, Albert Nobbs should be at the top of your list.

In Victorian London, the titular character (Close) is a fastidious, formal, and, according to those who know him, quite odd butler in a hotel. No one Albert works with is aware that he is actually a woman who straps down her breasts and never appears remotely undressed in front of another person. Albert is not a wink-wink man pretending to be a woman, à la Yentl or Victor/Victoria. When the one person who knows what he is hiding asks his “real” name, he says, “Albert.”

Albert is who he is, and the problem is that he is both lonely and trapped by his secret. Then he meets Hubert Page (McTeer, brilliantly wise and tough), a house painter who is hired to do some work around the hotel. When Albert is told that Hubert needs to sleep in Albert’s room, Albert is terrified. And rightfully: Hubert sees Albert undressing. But Hubert, it turns out, has the same secret. Except that Hubert is successfully living as a married man, working for himself, and is happy. Albert sees hope and possibility and tries to do what Hubert has, and key to this is wooing a maid in the hotel, the young and shallow Helen (Mia Wasikowska).

The smart script is without cliché or pedantic explanations of gender, and it is economically handled by the director Rodrigo Garcia. My only qualm is that it is perhaps too tidy, but it is a Victorian tragedy, and its tidiness fulfills its genre expectations without being either gothic or exploitative.

However, the script and the direction are easy not to even notice because Close’s performance is so entrancing. In the 1980s, when only Meryl Streep rivaled her as the great American actress, Close was often so strong and haughty as to be called mannish. This time, playing a woman who is a man, Close uses that masculinity even more skillfully, almost like a hot potato: It’s there, it’s not – will he be found out? But Albert is not only trying to convince the world that he is who he wants Albert to be. He is also nervous, amused, eager and it seems, in love.

Albert Nobbs
Directed by Rodrigo Garcia
Written by Glenn Close and John Banville
Starring Glenn Close, Janet McTeer and Mia Wasikowska
Rated R
At Landmark Hillcrest