The Danish Girl: A case study into (mis)identity
“If people can identify with what is going on behind the eyes they won’t care about what is going on between the thighs”- Ru Paul.
Prior to the advent of the 70s, psychoanalysis was only applied to film by surrealists who did so while heavily to wing the line of the Freudian fascination with dreams.This new era brought forth the conception of the cinema as an apparatus. Films are a very huge part of the machinery of narrative construction today; with the cinema being the focus of studies, being as it was the first tool of film watching we had at our disposal. With this essay I hope to conduct a case study into the use of psychoanalysis in film using Tom Hooper’s The Danish Girl as my subject. The film is Tom Hooper’s artistic attempt to bring to life on screen the experiences of one the first ever recorded cases of gender reassignment surgery. The literary inspiration for the book comes from David Ebershoff’s novel by the same name as well as the book ‘Man intoWoman” which is an autobiographical compilation of Lili’s own letters and manuscripts and those of others who knew and seemingly adored her. The film received a lot of praise and criticism as do most work of media, and it is through these works of self-reflection as Metz would like to call it; as well as drawing from the works of theorists such as Jacques Lacan and Roland Barthes that I wish to explore the concept of psychoanalysis in film
The first time in the film that we are given any indication that something is amiss is when Gerda coaxes Einar into posing in stockings so that she could finish a painting. A whole show is made as Gerda‘ educates’ him on the proper way to wear stockings as she delicately drapes a dress over him, so that it flows elegantly down the stockings and as surely as if he’d waited for this moment a while; he extends his leg forward in a gesture that for some reason registers as ‘feminine’. I imagine this scene and it calls to mind Judith Butler when she said, “The acts by which gender is constituted bear similarities to performative acts within theatrical contexts.”The movie as I shall presume you already know is about a transgender woman in the1920s who had to live her whole life as man named “Einar” and it follows her struggle with accepting herself. The thing that strikes me about this scene is how certain issues are so subtly explored that they almost seem to melt right into the scene. Einar enjoyed posing for the painting a little too much, I believe.The important thing here is not my perception of ‘subdued excitement’ in Einar’s movements but why I have come to such a perception. As Roland Barthes posits, the meanings that we attribute to images is not as we’d like to believe a ‘natural’ consequence of what is shown, there is essentially no universality to images. We ascribe meanings to things based a number of factors that range from the cultural to the geographical. My first viewing of The Danish Girl was not profound, I liked it because it was a ‘pretty’ film. It managed to capture the sublime in a way that I find to be a rarity. I don’t remember thinking about it any more deeply than that. However, when I watched it again for this purpose of this essay I was drawn to a number of things, the most distinct being the exploration of the Lacanian concept of the mirror stage and the real as well as its unconventional use of symbols other than language as the main signifiers in the movie.
A lot of the criticisms of the film centered around the fact that it did not exude enough‘ social justice’. It seemed that quite a number of people had gone to see the film with a pre-conceived notion of what story the Director should be telling.This to me is evidence of the films successful challenge of the concept of ‘intentionality’, this idea that meaning is produced by the person who created the object. That being said, I would like to point out, in my opinion at least, the film simultaneously feeds into the notion of intentionality. The movie is carefully crafted, from the picturesque scenery with its Hannibal type attention to detail, to the doll-like movement of the Lili, I think that the ‘plasticization’ of the movie so to speak is a deliberate attempt to force the consumer to follow the train of thought which they have now of course followed.By refusing to taint the aesthetic appeal with the gritty undertone of activism, has the audience not been forced to outrage? One could argue that in the current social climate ‘outrage’ would be a predictable and expected outcome.
At the time whenLili was going through her changes, there was no existing narrative around transgender, implying that as a tool for signification language would have been grossly inefficient. Lili’s whole life was show, she was forced to live as a woman who was recognized by the world as a man so is forced yet again to merely play at being a woman. I think it makes all the sense in the world, the showiness of the film and the sometimes admittedly exaggerated self-conscious portrayal is calculated so as to highlight these fine points. Cooper in telling his story moves away from the general formula of the dialogue being the main signifier ofthe plot; he instead places a lot of emphasis on other mechanisms of signification such as the fashion, landscape, color scheme and musical arrangements. He tells the story mainly through various technical and aesthetic mediums usually relegated to the realm of the ‘incidental’. This ties with the Lacanian concept of ‘The Real’, that part of ourselves from which we are locked off from through initiation into the sphere of language. It tries to portray Einar/Lili’s struggle to not only access the ‘real’ self but to reconcile it with the notions of self that have been hoisted upon him. As Einar, he is only able to express his true feelings (his love for his friend Hans) through his paintings of the ‘bog’ and as Lili he found expression in performing the acts of womanhood, dressing the part, walking the part, talking the part. The macabre thing being that in either situation as Einar or Lili he/she was still inevitably only playing a part.
We are never fully able to access the ‘real’. It would be easy to say that ‘Lili’ is Einar’s real self; as she fought so bravely to prove. It is however important to keep in mind that ‘Lili’ was as much a construct of society as Einar ever was; ergo the real still remained as it was, as Lacan has proposed it to be, hidden and unattainable. The mirror stage is the point at which the child recognizes himself for the first time and in this way is made aware of his external body which he will then find to be contrary to their multi-faceted experience, unified in comparison. Owing to the disparity between the infant’s delicate state of existence and the reflection in the mirror, the image that is presented is idealized and the infants’ lifetime will be spent in pursuit of that ideal. As soon as the infant is inducted into the order of the symbolic, this idealized ‘I’ is henceforth established through the gaze of the ‘other’.Tom Hooper embodied this theory in the film in a number of ways but a scene that stands out for me is when Einar strips in front of a mirror; we see him shed the clothes that signified his life as a man, naked as the day he was born. I believe that what is represented here is a regression to the mirror stage which enables him to shed himself of the ideals which had been in part constructed by the gaze of ‘the other’ even if only to don another set of ideals constructed in much the same. As Einar tucks his penis between his legs, he seems to suggest to me that his masculinity is tied to this organ and that he believed that somehow ridding himself of it would enable his true form to emerge. This is not true of course. Einar believes that Lili is his true self but how can that be when she herself is a performance? a role which he can step into as easily as he steps out of the role of Einar. All of this he does not for himself but for the benefit of the ‘other’ through whom his identity is formed. It is not himself that he has to convince that Lili is in fact real but everyone else around him.
This unattainability of true understanding by others is evidenced by Gerda’s struggle with her acceptance of Lili, so much so that she also perpetuates the idea of a separate Lili devoid of Einar, as a way to rationalize it I suppose.Her constant flip-flopping between rational conversations with Lili and hysterically demanding that ‘the game’ cease immediately is indicative of just how problematic complete understanding would be. In conclusion I would like to state that the film is a wonderful exploration into identity and our understanding or misunderstanding of it. The film echoes Lacan’s theory of the‘ real’ where he asserts that we cannot ever hope to access it and any attempt to do so is in itself evidence of our failure; Einar’s attempt led ultimately to his death.
 The Danish girl. Harvard (18thed.) HOOPER, T., et al. (2016)
 Einar’s wife,she is also a painter and supports him through the transition.
 Butler, J.,1988. The body politics of Julia Kristeva. Hypatia, 3(3),pp.104-118.
 Barthes,R., 1977. Elements of semiology.Macmillan.
Image from The Indian Express.