A Filmmaker's Guide: Tom Hooper's 'The Danish Girl' (2015)
(Note: In order to get the most out of the article, it is recommended that you watch the film in question in its entirety at least once. Notes are not required but are encouraged).
Tom Hooper's The Danish Girl (2015) is one of the 2010s finest films by a flying mile. Personally, it is one of my favourite movies of all time. It captures every sense of beauty and emotion that comes out of a badly guarded secret. Based on the amazing and inspiring true story, it seeks to tell us about the life and times of one of modernism's greatest painters: Lili Elbe.
Her story is portrayed through a series of what I like to call 'emotional captures.' These are different states of emotions captured by her movements, her facial expressions, the camera angles upon her and the things and people around her that enhance the scene and/or the feeling of the scene. These emotional captures help us to understand an emotion that for many of us is so far out that we couldn't begin to conceive the complexity of Lili Elbe if we tried. These emotional captures are therefore there to give us, as the audience, meaning to these emotions and to help us put them into context of her life. As we know, the only thing greater than her art was her story—so let's get on with the analysis of Tom Hooper's epic extraordinaire, The Danish Girl (2015).
Emotional Capture 1: Henrik Sandahl
The character of Henrik is far more important than he is given credit for in the film. Not only is he the love of Lili Elbe, but he is also part of these emotional captures that happen throughout the film. Every time Henrik appears, there is some sort of emotional catharsis that happens to Lili which allows us to understand her thoughts and feelings a lot more. Especially regarding her romantic life. We see in this scene that upon receiving a kiss from Henrik, she cathartically gets a nose bleed. This brings us on to the feeling of extreme anxiety in which Lili tries to disguise her act by running away. An aspect of herself that she was performing before the film began (running away from her true self, in metaphor). And so, we get to understand many dimensions of Lili Elbe by just having Henrik turn up in the scene.
In order to replicate this, you would need to represent the catharsis whenever the character is interacted with in order to create that pattern of understanding. Each time, the catharsis gets lower and lower until finally, it seems to halt entirely. Lili Elbe has become comfortable and so, moves on emotionally to the next step of her romance with Henrik—her and Henrik as a couple. This emotional step is part of that pattern from the very first time they sit together. We have the emotional catharsis of the nose bleed and then we have her run away only to return to him later. And this is part of the pattern—she returns to him. A brilliant way of presenting a beautiful romantic story, it serves as not only the main plot but acts out that Henrik is both character and symbol for pattern and understanding.
Emotional Capture 2: Doctors
There are an awful lot of scenes in this movie regarding doctors that are used on purpose to make the audience side with the main character. A lot of the time is also spent with people shouting at the main character regarding her identity and their own emotions, not taking her's into account. In this scene we see a doctor declare Lili insane and so, we as an audience, side with the main character against the wish of the doctors. Since we do this, the scenes with doctors in them that refuse to help Lili with her understanding of herself are stricken off the audience's records as characters who live in a backward society and a product of that hierarchy that refuses to give space for difference. It helps us understand time as well. The time in which Lili lived was possibly already ripe with sexism and racism and so Lili's courage to protest against the doctors wishes by being herself is again, something that makes the audience emotionally side with the main character.
Emotional Capture 3: Gerda
Again, we have a point at which a character is representative of an emotional capture/pattern. Lili Elbe goes through a series of crises emotionally throughout the film and within all of these scenes, Gerda is present. Throughout the film though, as Gerda changes her mind about whether she sides with Lili or not, she begins to not only understand Lili but to also give comfort to her identity. As Lili becomes more comfortable with Gerda, Lili also becomes more comfortable with being Lili—her confidence growing to the point at which she is about to have surgery. In order for the audience to understand this, we need to have this not only repeated but also shifting throughout the movie. Like this:
- Scene 1: Gerda does not approve of Lili—Lili is not confident with herself
- Scene 2: Gerda begins to understand Lili—Lili becomes slightly more confident about herself
- Scene 3: Gerda understands and approves of Lili—Lili is very confident about herself.
Since their marriage is still at the centre of the film, Lili feels as if she requires Gerda's approval in order to be confident about who she is and when Gerda weighs out the options, she in the end, does the correct thing and lets Lili be Lili. She optimises this by standing by her even in death.
Apply the logic to the death scene:
Notice her reaction. Gerda begins to cry as Lili drifts off into death. It's not an extreme scene but it lets the audience know about Gerda's intentions for Lili to be Lili. Her acceptance and approval come through in a catharsis in death.
A brilliant epic of a film, Lili Elbe's much-needed biopic was a complete success and continues to be one of the films referenced to be one of the greatest movies of the 21st Century so far. An unforgettable experience of emotion and cinema, it has become an icon of Oscar-Worthy acting, intense cinematic experience and a story that is as memorable and complex as it is completely and utterly beautiful. The Danish Girl (2015) continued to amaze us all, whether by its acting or its technique, it grasps the imagination like a beautiful piece of art.