2015 LGBT: The Banality of the Unique

Carol - 2015

2015 had the as-yet rare distinction of engendering two acclaimed movies about LGBT topics. The first, Carol, told the story of two women falling in love in 1950s, homo-averse New York; the second, The Danish Girl, dealt with the first person to attempt sex reassignment surgery. Both of them openly depicted erstwhile-taboo relations; both of them successfully increased awareness of LGBT issues. And both, as it turns out, have the same fatal flaw. In each, strong acting can’t save a story whose only point of interest is being LGBT.

Both Carol and The Danish Girl take place in the earlier parts of the 20th century, when members of the LGBT community were usually considered mentally unstable. Carol concerns the emotional and sexual awakening of Therese Belivet (Rooney Mara), a young wannabe photographer who finds herself stuck working shifts in a department store. During one such shift, she bumps into Carol Aird (Cate Blanchett), a rich housewife undergoing a painful divorce, and is left infatuated by Carol’s beauty. As luck would have it, Carol, a woman fully aware she’s lesbian, seems to find Therese interesting, too. The two of them begin seeing each other, but their growing relationship soon runs into obstacles: the men in their lives, a bitter custody fight, and large doses of insecurity and anxiety. Love, especially their kind of love, brings trouble.

If Carol is a tale of first love, then The Danish Girl is a story of love’s rediscovery. Einar and Gerda Wegener (Eddie Redmayne, Alicia Vikander) are two married painters living in Copenhagen. Theirs is a portrait of perfect marital bliss, five years of joy without even a hint of regret. Deep down, however, Einar has always felt a little strange in his male body. When his wife asks him to pose in woman’s clothing for a portrait, he finds the experience nothing short of physical liberation. This, among other things, forces him into a painful process of self-examination and questioning that eventually leads to his emerging reborn as Lili Elbe. Fulfilled as her decision makes her feel, it isn’t easy to stick to, given the stakes in her art career and the ever-present judgment of society. More importantly, Gerda has to learn to accept that the soulmate she cared for and relied on is no more. She has to willfully give up on Einar and love a whole new person, and that isn’t the least bit easy.

Both Carol and The Danish Girl are blessed with humanizing performances from the main women. In the former, Rooney Mara does a textbook “awkward, shy, insecure young person” interpretation; you feel so bad for the self-conscious, embarrassed person on the screen that it hurts. And Cate Blanchett effortlessly brings her character a suave, poised air, an aura of confidence she nevertheless doesn’t hesitate to break in moments of understated but genuine emotional turmoil. In TDG, meanwhile, Eddie Redmayne pulls a good performance, but he often seems like he’s recycling the kind of physical approach that brought him such glory in The Theory of Everything. You can’t help but feel his turn as a woman is more about the mannerisms than the emotions. The real star is Alicia Vikander, the wife who has her husband’s struggles abruptly thrust upon her. She has to find the courage and strength to welcome a new person into her life, and she does so with such believable despair, concern, and eventual acceptance.

The Danish Girl

Yet Mara, Blanchett, Redmayne, and Vikander are all acting in movies that would crumble into mere footnotes without them. LGBT relationships are a delicate balance between uniqueness and ordinariness. They’re different from heterosexual relationships, yes, but the emotions between Ellen and Portia are fundamentally the same as those between Rick and Ilsa: love. In their haste to make movies putting LGBT relationships front and center, Todd Haynes and Tom Hooper have exalted their stories’ uniqueness while forgetting their ordinariness. Therese and Lili’s tales may deserve more attention and understanding, but they are still stories about love, whose essential form – meet, fall in love, face obstacles, overcome said obstacles – has been regurgitated in Hollywood for 90 years ad nauseum.

Alas, both movies assume the mere fact of being LGBT-related gives them the right to neglect any further development of said elementary story-line. Only Carol dares to even try and innovate by ending on a vaguely positive note, a small step up from the gloom of forebears like The Imitation Game and Milk. But that’s about it. Love stories are defined by the obstacles between lovers. Yet for this, neither film really bothers to go beyond a cliché display of homo/trans-phobia and sexuality questioning, as if all the vibrant twists, wacky nuances, and quirky characterizations populating similar films about straight couples suddenly vanish whenever the two people are of the same gender. Compared to such creative exemplars of the straight-romance genre like Annie Hall, Some Like It Hot, and Roman Holiday, the basic stuff served up here is stuck in a kind of perpetual “getting there” mode. Stories about heterosexual relationships come flowing out in all shapes and sizes and situations, but by the time LGBT love stories stumble past their fundamental logistical obstacles (if at all), they never have the energy to shift into “being there” mode.

To be fair, this overarching flaw doesn’t hit both movies to the same degree. The Danish Girl is by far the more blatantly cliché. Tom Hooper scored big with his last sappy feel-good project, The King´s Speech, and he seems to have taken a leaf out of that book. Leaving LGBT themes aside, every tear, every argument, every painful choice Vikander and Redmayne make is distressingly predictable. The plot overlooks some of the stickier historical facts (Gerda may have been a lesbian; Einar’s best male friend in the movie never actually existed) to get the perfect, uplifting story it wants. Somebody ought to remind this guy: Beethoven’s Moonlight Sonata doesn’t sound very good if you slam on the keys.

Carol, on the other hand, tries to disguise its banality in swirls of mind-numbing subtleties. It’s based on a novel that heavily relies on Therese’s inner thoughts, and the awkward transition between the forms shows. It puts the job of driving the plot, holding tension, and eliciting reactions on a never-ending series of gestures, vague pieces of dialogue, and silent, knowing glances, a choice that renders an already-bland movie even more dull. The few monologues there are are so sparse that when they do come, they sound like theater monologues: clumsy, overly dramatic, and uncomfortably long. Therese may be painfully shy, but as every quiet person knows, shyness doesn’t really hold people’s attention, no matter how realistic Rooney Mara makes it look.

So in the timeline of LGBT movies, both Carol and The Danish Girl are mediocre steppingstones that, in time, maybe, will lead to something better. Sure, they have realistic, human roles. And they don’t mince the nature of their subject matter. But Brokeback Mountain already did the same thing 11 years ago. TDG deserves credit for bringing a trans story to the screen, but these two films otherwise haven’t gone very far in terms of development and interest. If anything, they hurt their cause with their hackneyed stories. Until someone has the chutzpah to make a movie about a gay couple where “couple” matters just as much as “gay,” all the movies in the world about LGBT issues will be forgetting half the picture. They talk about “missing the forest for the trees” for just this kind of thing.


Carol

The Danish Girl

Starring:

Cate Blanchett, Rooney Mara

Eddie Redmayne, Alicia Vikander

Running Time:

118 minutes

120 minutes

Rating:

R

R

Produced by:

Elizabeth Karlsen, Christine Vachon, Stephen Woolley

Tom Hooper, Eric Fellner, Tim Bevan, Anne Harrison, Gail Mutrux, Linda Reisman

Directed by:

Todd Haynes

Tom Hooper

Written by:

Phyllis Nagy

Lucinda Coxon

Based on:

Patricia Highsmith’s 1952 novel, The Price of Salt

David Ebershoff’s 2000 novel, The Danish Girl

Image of Carol here. Image of The Danish Girl here.