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Venice Film Festival 2015: "The Danish Girl"

Far be it from me to make any grand assumptions about the general character of the Venice Film Festival after spending all of two and a half days here. On the other hand, he said, pulling up his khakis, ruffling his backpack, and lighting a Marlboro, that’s what journalists do in the field: get the lay of the land, gather the facts on the ground, and make a goddamn assessment. An assessment that’s square and true and real.

Excuse me. Anyway, what I can glean here is that it’s a relatively relaxed and well-organized festival, and a festival with an audience that’s receptive to all manner of film, from restored classics to wildly experimental features to conventional-for-what-it’s-worth international art fare and more. Including, as is perhaps unavoidable, what we call Awards Season Fare.

And so this morning I saw “The Danish Girl,” the new film directed by Tom Hooper, who struck Oscar gold with his 2010 “The King’s Speech,” starring Eddie Redmayne, who struck Oscar gold with his performance in 2014’s “The Theory of Everything,” and Uggi, the adorable dog who kind of struck Oscar gold in 2011’s “The Artist.” Oh, wait a minute. The dog, owned by the main characters in the film, is adorable and winsome but not Uggi. Why he gets as much attention as he does in the movie is one of its mysteries; at one point I was worried that the whole thing was gonna turn into a transgender variant of “The Awful Truth.”

You see where this notice is going. Let me try and steer it away from that place for a little while. “The Danish Girl,” scripted by Lucinda Cox, based on an account of one of the 20th centuries first medically-assisted transsexuals, is an engaging and picturesque film. It is also, at this particular historical/cultural moment, a real problem picture in the ideology/representation departments. As the transgender civil rights movement gains cultural traction, the suspicion against trans stories told by non-trans artists and performers is a roiling flashpoint (is that a mixed metaphor?) in the, um, cultural conversation. While “The Danish Girl” is scrupulous in its 21st-century Distinguished Film tastefulness—my, the gorgeous cinematography, gee, the nuanced but nevertheless heartstring-tugging Alexandre Desplat score— it is also largely free of special pleading. Its signal virtue is in not treating Einar Wegener, Redmayne’s character, as a Special Other, or in slavering Straight Person Compassion on him or her. At its best moments it maintains a discreet detachment.

At the movie’s outset, Einar Wegener seems uniquely blessed. He’s a landscape painter of great talent in 1920s Denmark, which looks here like a great place to live. He has a gorgeous, kind, carnal, and talented wife, Gerde, also a painter, albeit one whose career is lagging behind Einar’s. They also have the aforementioned Jack Russell-esque dog, named Hvap. They have nifty artiste pals, including a free-spirited dancer played by Amber Heard. No kids yet, but “trying.”

One afternoon Einar visits the ballet, and in the costume room gazes semi-longingly at the tulle. Later, Gerde asks Einar to wear ballet shoes and stockings to help her out with a portrait she’s working on. And again Einar gets that look on his face, and he gets it again looking at Gerde unlace her boots. There’s a lot of this kind of indicating in the first third of the film, and an uncharitable viewer might characterize some of the moments as “Glen or Glenda” by way of “Masterpiece Theater.” The narrative picks up steam after Gerde and Einar concoct a drag persona for Einar to disguise himself in for an arts ball. There he beguiles a demimonde habitué played by Ben Whishaw; complications ensue. Einar then adopts the persona of “Lili” over and over again. In a “what incredible irony” moment, Gerde’s portraits of Lili set her free as an artist, and launch her career. The marriage becomes strained as Lili emerges as the more real person than Einar. And the movie really gains momentum when it moves outside the world of the arts and into greater Early 20th Century Europe, where transgenderism was practically unheard of, and homosexuality categorized as a disease.

Einar’s relentless quest to become Lili is often met by life-threatening resistance, and Gerde, while not entirely comprehending, is tireless in championing her husband as he insists on becoming not-her-husband. Lili, in fact, can be a little callous to Gerde. (Her character is so enlightened as to be contemporary. Remarking to one of her male portrait subjects, she says, “It’s hard for a man to be looked at by a woman. For a man to submit to a woman’s gaze is unsettling.” I’m sure that ideas along these lines existed prior to Julie Kristeva, but to put them in the mouths of these characters strikes me as too convenient. Anyway.) The ultimate irony of this narrative is that it can be taken as yet another story of a man finding him/her/self at the expense of his wife. Remember that old Dean Martin movie, “How To Save Your Marriage And Ruin Your Life?” Switch the “ruin” and the “save” and you’ve almost got this.

And as such, the movie winds up belonging, in the performance respect, not to Redmayne but to Vikander. She’s stalwart, sexy, funny, intelligent. I’m no Oscar prognosticator, but if “Ex Machina” is too cerebral for the Academy (and I don’t know that it necessarily is), “The Danish Girl” hasn’t that problem at all, and Vikander’s work here should earn her a Best Actress nomination.

There. I’ve made an Oscar prediction. I feel so dirty.

Glenn Kenny

Glenn Kenny was the chief film critic of Premiere magazine for almost half of its existence. He has written for a host of other publications and resides in Brooklyn. Read his answers to our Movie Love Questionnaire here.

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