The Danish Girl
Author: Lucinda Coxon
Writer’s Potential: 7
Logline:In the late 1920s, a woman suffers as her husband struggles with his gender identity.
Synopsis:Copenhagen, 1928. GRETA WAUD examines some of her husband’s paintings at an art gallery, eavesdropping on admirers of his works. EINAR WEGENER, the husband in question, stands across the room, being lavished with attention from the art community. Greta goes to an art-supply store, where the clerk chats with her about a commission to paint Fonnesbech, a department store owner. She comes home, and Einar insists on a midday love session. Greta gets dressed up, with Einar helping to fix her make-up, to go see RASMUSSEN, a successful art dealer. She brings her portfolio, but Rasmussen finds the work boring. He patronizes her by saying that if she finds the right material, she may succeed.
Greta comes home, livid. She blames Einar for setting up the appointment to begin with. Greta forces a favor out of Einar. She has to do a painting of friend/opera star ANNA, but she’s so behind on her portrait commissions that she can’t wait for Anna to squeeze in a sitting. She makes Einar put on some of Anna’s costume clothing. Despite his obvious discomfort with this, she dresses him up, then starts to apply make-up, until Einar looks like a lovely, coquettish young woman. Greta and Einar watch Anna performed, amazed by the level of emotion she puts into her work. She’s similarly amazed by Einar’s ability to do the same — Greta just doesn’t put that level of herself into the paintings. She goes to do another commission, of Fonnesbech’s horse, and Einar admires the sketches — they’re better than much of what she’s done.
Einar doesn’t want to go to another gallery opening because he always feels he’s putting on a false face. Greta jokingly suggests actually putting on a false face. She dresses him up as a girl again and sketches him. Suddenly, the sketches turn to paintings — dozens of paintings, each better than the last. They attend an artists’ ball with Einar dressed as “Lili,” a “woman” they claim is Einar’s cousin. “Lili” stumbles on HENRIK SENDAHL, a fellow artist who takes Einar as a real woman. They flirt, and Einar is a little amused by the intensity. Greta stumbles across Henrik and “Lili” just as things get a little hot and heavy. She’s dumbfounded but before she can say anything, a fountain of blood streams from “Lili“‘s nose and they have to rush her away. Later, Einar lounges as if nothing happened. He asks Greta if Lili had fun.
A few days later, Greta and Einar have a more in-depth conversation about “Lili,” in which he insists she’s a real person, separate from him. She’s disturbed. Claiming to see Rasmussen, Einar sneaks off to Anna’s dressing room and becomes “Lili.” He goes on a date with Henrik. Greta’s suspicious but has no proof. She begins to take out her emotions in her work. She meets with Rasmussen, showing her the new “Lili” series. He still doesn’t like them — until he stumbles across the latest one, in which Lili is falling back into the arms of blond man, covered in blood. He believes he can find a market for paintings like these. Greta admits she has a whole series of them at her studio.
“Lili” visits Henrik again, but Henrik identifies “her” as Einar and admits he’s a homosexual. Scared and confused, “Lili” runs from his apartment. “Lili” returns home to Greta, crying. “She” admits to seeing Henrik, which makes Greta recoil. When Einar normalizes, they agree to go to a doctor, HEXLER, who assesses Einar as possibly having a tumor. They check him out with an X-ray and find nothing, so Hexler diagnoses him as psychopathic and recommends institutionalization. Meanwhile, Rasmussen has sold Greta’s “Lili” portraits to a dealer in Paris. Greta decides she and Einar should flee to France to avoid the forced institutionalization of Einar. Greta becomes the toast of the town, but Einar has no motivation to continue his work. He’s acting like a different person — not quite “Lili” but not himself, either.
Greta sees HANS AXGIL, an art-dealing Dane living in France who was a childhood friend of Einar. She pleads to him for help, and he reluctantly agrees, mainly a result of his attraction for Greta. Greta brings up a new dealer to Einar, who’s unenthusiastic since he hasn’t been producing. Greta insists that they meet him for dinner, but on the night, Einar never shows up. Greta and Hans end up having a flirt-riddled dinner. Greta invites Hans to the apartment to see Einar, but when they get there — it’s “Lili.” Greta is horrified but tries to create the impression that “Lili” is, indeed, a separate person. “Lili” apologizes for Einar not being available. That night, Einar is “half-Lili,” and he begs Greta for a nightdress. Visibly uncomfortable, Greta refuses, but Einar insists that when he dreams, they’re Lili’s.
The next day, Greta spills Einar’s secret to Hans, pleading for help. She comes home to find “Lili” has gone on a shopping spree. “She” is excited because “she” can sit for Greta again. Greta decides to take advantage of the bad situation by painting “Lili” some more. Greta meets Hans at a show of “Lili” paintings. Hans ups the flirtation ante, but Greta demures, reminding Hans that she’s still Einar’s wife. He accepts but immediately stops paying attention to her, so Greta storms out of the gallery. After going home to find “Lili” still there and unable to provide her comfort, Greta meets with Hans again. They make love.
When Anna comes to Paris for a touring production, she tells Greta that Einar has to see someone — a specialist. After what happened with Hexler, Greta is gun-shy but Greta believes the mental problems of a man believing he’s a woman are actually causing physical problems — he’s losing weight, among other things. Greta returns to find Einar returned to semi-normal. He promises he’ll find a solution to the problem. Einar goes to see Hans, who helps set him up with a variety of doctors. The diagnoses range from homosexuality to insanity, until he finds a university professor, BOLK, who both finds Einar’s case interesting and has seen symptoms like this before. Bolk mentions a new and dangerous procedure to remove Einar’s genitalia and replace them with that of a female. The only catch — nobody’s done it before. The previous man Bolk mentioned backed out of the surgery at the last minute. Einar believes that, with “Lili” taking over and getting stronger, this is his only hope. Einar says his goodbyes to Greta and Hans.
“Lili” goes to Dresden to undergo the first procedure, removal of the genitals. After considering it for a long time, Greta decides to go out of sympathy, just as Hans tells her about a big gallery wanting to show the Lili paintings. It’s better if she goes to the opening, but Greta goes to Dresden instead. She’s horrified by what she sees — a distraught “Lili” in horrible physical condition, forced still by weighted sandbags. Bolk tries to console her, but Greta is overcome. Nonetheless, she decides to remain strong by “Lili“‘s side.
A month later, “Lili” has regained some strength and is almost ready for discharge. Anticipating this, Greta goes to Copenhagen to put their old apartment back in order. She confesses to Anna her concern — the idea of two unmarried women living together is a little much, especially if anyone knows the truth about Einar. Greta cares for “Lili,” who requires a great deal of regulated medications. “Lili” gets a job at Fonnesbech’s department store. Greta wants “Lili” to start painting, but “she” isn’t interested. Greta realizes “Lili” is overtaxing herself and not taking her meds properly. One day, Greta turns a corner to find Henrik and “Lili” walking arm in arm. She feels betrayed and confused, but “Lili” insists they’re just friends — Henrik is a homosexual and has no interest in women. “Lili” announces she’s going back to Dresden for phase two of the operation, the addition of a vagina. Greta is afraid — this procedure is infinitely more dangerous.
Nonetheless, Greta stands by “Lili” as “she” returns to Dresden. “Lili” confesses that Greta has provided great emotional support during this ordeal. Greta goes to a hotel in the city, where it turns out Hans has come to offer his own emotional support to Greta. Bolk contacts Greta. “Lili” lost a lot of blood during the operation and is suffering from an intense fever they’re struggling to control. She’s also had some unusual bleeding, so Bolk performed some investigative surgery — with “Lili“‘s consent — and discovered a pair of ovaries buried in “her” intestines. Turns out, “she” was a woman — sort of. Later, Greta and Hans visit “Lili.” “She” has cooled down and looks a bit more peaceful but still isn’t out of the woods. “Lili” awakens and tells Greta “she” had a wonderful dream — “she” was a newborn baby, cradled in “her” mother’s arms, and “her” mother called her Lili. “Lili” drifts into unconsciousness or perhaps death, a look of bliss on “her” face.
Greta accompanies Hans to his mansion in Bluetooth, where Einar and “Lili” grew up. They look at the sea, which reminds a distraught Greta of the paintings of Einar’s that she was looking at in the opening scene.
Comments:This is an interesting but flawed fact-based story. It has an interesting storyline and the writer does a nice job of evoking the period and culture of late-’20s Europe. Where it stumbles, strangely enough, is in its presentation from Greta’s point of view. Greta internalizes every reaction to the chaos unfolding around her. While this might be more realistic, it does not make her a compelling character. Because it’s hard to gauge what she’s thinking or why she does the things she does, I have to wonder why the writer chose to tell her story rather than Einar/”Lili“‘s.
Because Greta never makes much of an attempt to understand what Einar is going through, the audience doesn’t truly understand what he’s going through. This unusual story doesn’t portray the typical “woman trapped in a man’s body” concept; rather, it takes the more interesting approach of having a man develop a split personality and slowly succumb to this separate, female identity, all the while claiming he’s not insane. Honestly, that’s the definition of insanity, and the fact that we never get to know him through Greta’s perspective makes it harder to appreciate or empathize with his struggle. He merely comes across as both crazy and a bit selfish, which turns Greta into a bland codependent.
Greta should fight harder to “keep” Einar, and perhaps we should see more of Einar struggling to hold on to his masculine identity. This is where the conflict of the story lies, not in Greta’s hard-to-read internal conflict over Einar’s behavior. There are brief allusions to Einar’s struggles in a few scenes, but that all seems to happen offscreen as the writer jumps ahead months and years. What we see is Einar folding like a cheap card table, while Greta supports the drastic changes. The reasons for their behavior are not clear, making the whole story more frustrating than it needs to be.
Because the story follows Greta, I assume the writer wants to target women with this story. The gender-reassignment subject matter might cause some controversy and build a slightly larger audience.