Hazel McHaffie

Les Miserables

Body image

OK, I know, I know! That second helping of roast potatoes, those too-tempting chocolates, that one party too far … they’ve all left their legacy. The break from gym/exercise class/running regime, late nights, extra caffeine, missed beauty routines … they’ve played havoc with your muscle tone, your skin, your hair, your energy levels, too. The mirror is definitely not on your friend.  But rest assured, you’re not alone; plenty of folk have issues with their body image at this time of year – witness much bemoaning and bewailing on social media!

It’s cold outside, you’re on holiday, it’s the perfect time to snuggle down for some wall to wall viewing. Toes toasty warm in Great Aunt Marjorie’s hand-knitted socks, refreshment at the ready, lights dimmed … and we’re off. You get the picture.

Body image issues + DVD watching = cue for today’s blog post. A good moment to talk about a film I bought ages ago, all about real body image and identity crises: The Danish Girl.

Based on the true story of Danish painter Einar Wegener, at the beginning of the 20th century, who became transgender pioneer, Lili Elbe, it’s a beautiful portrayal of unconditional love and one person’s fight to become the woman she believed herself to be.

A stellar cast were involved in the creation of this masterpiece.

Tom Hooper – director of The King’s Speech and Les Miserables – saw the potential and had the vision and understanding in the first place.
Gerda Wegener is played by Academy Award winner Alicia Vikander with great sympathy, integrity and poignancy, and we understand much of the complexity of the subject through her eyes.
And small wonder that Hooper immediately thought of Eddie Redmayne for Einar’s role; he wonderfully captures the inner conflict and outward battles faced by a transgender person, at a time long before society recognised the whole concept of ambivalent identities. Redmayne is utterly convincing as both Lili and Einar, but then we’re rather used to him inhabiting the characters he takes on to an incredible degree (think Stephen Hawkins in The Theory of Everything).
Both principal actors are completely believable in their roles bringing a quite breathtaking authenticity and emotional intelligence to their performances.
Couple that with Copenhagen as the perfect location, capturing the rather austere ultra-conservative, repressed society of the time and place, and you have a winning combination.

But what of the real story behind the film? The original and real Einar Wegener was a landscape artist married to another painter, Gerda Gottlieb, who specialised in portraits. They lived a bohemian lifestyle in Denmark at the turn of the twentieth century. When Gerda asked her husband to stand in as a model dressed in women’s attire, Einar’s love of all things feminine became apparent. Gerda’s portraits of this striking new model were noticed and professional success followed, but their marriage came under increasing strain. Lili began going out in public as a woman, sometimes with Gerda, sometimes alone. She meticulously studied the nuances of female behaviour until she was gesture perfect, and socially totally convincing. But her dream was to be perfect anatomically as well, so she eventually underwent a series of pioneering gender-reassignment surgeries, culminating in the transplant of a uterus into her body in 1931. But this last one proved to be a step too far, and she died from a lethal postoperative infection, commonplace in that era.

Knowing what we know today, it grates to hear doctors in the film talking of ‘insanity’ and ‘aberrant behaviour’, and it’s rather terrifying to watch the draconian efforts made to correct this ‘madness’ – zapping both brain and genitalia. But the brutal beating Lili gets when she minces along in a questionable outfit is alas not unknown even today. Gentler terms such as ‘confused’ or ‘different’ perhaps sit more easily with us nowadays in this context, but this film underlines the reality: Lili herself is not confused; she knows only too well that ‘This is not my body.’ And her whispered plea: ‘I don’t know what to do‘, is heart-breakingly poignant. It’s a salutary reminder that for those who find themselves in the wrong body the struggles are both huge and complicated.

Inside of Me coverI’ve had to face a fair few of my own demons this year, what with undignified hospital procedures, mutilating operations, uncertain prognoses. And of course, I’ve read about and listened to many, many people for whom this whole area is fraught with angst whilst researching the subject of body image and identity crises for my book, Inside of Me, a couple of years ago. And I’d say, The Danish Girl captures the reality as well as any novel, any story, I’ve encountered to date. Hats off to David Ebershoff (writer), Hooper, Redmayne and Vikander – all brilliant. Their descriptions of how and why they made this film were as impressive as the end product, and they’ve more than achieved their aim: to bring this difficult subject and courageous story to the attention of the public, sensitively and respectfully.

I loved it.



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