Friday, February 19, 2016

"The Danish Girl" and "The Revenant"

Almost done with the nominees.  Another pair of reviews for another odd couple pairing of movies ahead.

I've had very mixed feelings toward Tom Hooper's movies so far.  I found his style in "The King's Speech" distracting and flat out hated its application in "Les Miserables."  I didn't mind him so much in "The Danish Girl," though, where the camera is fairly restrained and unobtrusive.  There's a definite sense of caution here, as the filmmakers are dealing with a highly sensitive subject: Lili Elbe, one of the first transgender women to undergo sexual reassignment surgery. 

It's the 1920s in Copenhagen, and landscape artist Einar Wegener (Eddie Redmayne) is happily married to portrait artist Gerda Wegener (Alicia Vikander).  One day when a model for one of Gerda's paintings is absent, she recruits Einar to pose in her place in women's stockings.  The episode affects Einar deeply, and he has soon created an entire female alter ego for himself, Lili.  Initially Gerda encourages this, thinking it's all in fun, and finds Lili to be a wonderful subject for her paintings.  but then Lili goes out in public, again and again, and begins a secret relationship with a colleague, Henrik (Ben Whishaw).  Soon, Lili no longer wants to be Einar, and Gerda has to grapple with the loss of her husband.  She finds herself drawn to Einar's old friend Hans Axgil (Matthias Schoenaerts), as Lili searches for a way to more fully become a woman.

There have been several well-reasoned pieces in circulation that detail why the portrayal of Lili Elbe in this film is problematic, particularly as to how Einar and Lili are often treated like they're different people, and the male gaze is often uncomfortably present.  However, what got to me was how timid the film was, often portraying Lili as a martyr figure, a romantic notion more than a flesh and blood human being.  The performance didn't help - Eddie Redmayne is visualy striking as Lili, but the character herself only seems to be able to express melancholic longing and vulnerability, and is dreadfully passive in her interactions with men.  I found Alicia Vikander far more engaging as strong willed, ambitious Gerda.  She's the POV character, the stronger personality in the marriage, and ultimately the more relatable, sympathetic figure. 

I found "The Danish Girl" an enjoyable watch mainly for the visuals, which are lovely.  Hooper does his best to reflect Einar and Gerda's work in their environs, and gets a lot of mileage out of exploring the artistic community that they belong to.  However, I didn't find the story of Lili Elbe compelling because there is so little to the character.  Most of the film feels like it's Gerda's story, with Lili only really coming to the fore very late in the story.  "The Theory of Everything" was quite similar, spending so much time on Stephen Hawking's disabilities and relationship with his wife, it had a hard time making the case for his scientific genius.  While there's no question that Lili Elbe is a woman, we learn so little about who she is - her internal world, who she is beyond her desire to change. 

And so we come to Hugh Glass and "The Revenant," which is Alejandro Gonzales Iñárritu and Emmanuel Lubezki doing Terrence Malick by way of Andrei Tarkovsky.  And after being forced to sit through the endless slog of this movie, I'm feeling much more charitable toward their last collaboration, "Birdman."  Don't get me wrong.  "The Revenant" is gorgeous, with spectacular cinematography and some admirable, committed performances from a talented cast.  Accounts of what the filmmakers had to go through to get the film made are highly impressive.  However, "The Revenant" is chiefly a grim, painful exercise in plumbing the depths of human misery.  And that is just never going to be my thing.

The year is 1823, and Leonard DiCaprio plays Hugh Glass, a frontiersman who guides a party of fur trappers through the wilderness of South Dakota.  Their luck is bad, and they are attacked by a band of Natives searching for a kidnapped woman.  Glass is then mauled by a bear, who leaves him badly wounded and close to death.  Captain Andrew Henry (Domhnall Gleeson), the leader of the group, leaves three men behind with Glass so that he'll receive a proper burial - youngster Jim Bridger (Will Poulter), conniving reprobate John Fitzgerald (Tom Hardy), and Glass's own teenage, half native son Hawk (Forrest Goodluck).  As Glass clings to life, haunted by visions of his dead wife (Grace Dove), the three men clash over what to do with him.  

Now, there are many things about "The Revenant" that I like - the strong depiction of Native American characters, the bleak period setting, and especially the challenging nature of the filmmaking itself.  However, the concept of DiCaprio fighting the elements and dragging himself back from the brink of death is a lot more appealing than actually watching it happen.  To put it bluntly, the majority of the movie is DiCaprio crawling, stumbling, staggering, and lurching though Lubezki's beautifully shot landscapes to track down the evil Fitzgerald.  And frankly, I'd had enough of that after about an hour and a half, but the movie runs 156 minutes total.  For all the dreamy flashbacks, and all the reverence of the natural world, Iñárritu  is no Malick.  He's very good at capturing a hellish experience, but his work lacks the poetry and transcendence I needed to fully embrace it. 

So points for ambition and some very high highs, but this is not a movie I found easy to appreciate.

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