Two very different kinds of love are depicted in two of last year’s best films, Brooklyn and The Danish Girl, both of which I recently viewed on HBO. In Brooklyn it is the two young lovers, Eilis (Saoirse Ronan), the Irish immigrant and Tony (Emory Cohen), the Italian boy who meets her at a dance, that are mutually smitten with romantic love.
This is a type of love that many of us who are older look back upon with fond nostalgia. If you can remember that glow that filled your life when you were first with your loved one, you know what I mean. Your body and spirit yearned to be joined to hers. As Tony says to Eilis when he meets her after her night class at Brooklyn College, “All I want to do is travel home with you. No drink, no food, no nothing. I know you have to study, and get some sleep. I’ll take you to your house and then say goodnight. Otherwise it’s too long to wait.” (All quotes from the film’s Shooting Script)
Later on, riding in a trolley car (it’s the 1950s) Tony says to her “I like how you’re being, I don’t know the word. When you go along with everything.” Eilis answers, “Amenable?” He says, “Yeah. Amenable. OK, so while you’re being amenable. . . Can we go see a movie this week? When you’re not at night classes? And if the date goes well, can we see a movie next week, too?”
Their mutual attraction continues to grow, but when Eilis’s sister in Ireland suddenly dies and her mother is left alone Eilis thinks she should return for a month or so to console her mom. Although understanding and empathetic with Eilis, Tony is apprehensive about such a separation, and he blurts out, “Marry me. We don’t have to tell anyone. We can do it quickly, and it will just be between us.” Eilis asks, “But why do you want to do it?” He responds, “Because if we don’t, I’ll go crazy.”
Although Eilis’s feelings for Tony are not as explicitly expressed, she too loves him, agrees to be married, and later invites him into her basement lodging, where they consummate their love for the first time.
Her return to Ireland, after their city-hall marriage, provides a first major test of their love, but the second film (The Danish Girl) that we are considering here is much more about the tests of love, and it is a very different type than romantic love, and it is to that that we now turn—the conclusion to Brooklyn (and many other pleasing and insightful aspects of the film) can thus be enjoyed without foreknowledge by those who have not yet seen it.
Not long after the beginning of The Danish Girl, we see the main couple of the film one morning in their Copenhagen residence in the 1920s. They are the landscape artist Einar Wegener (Eddie Redmayne) and his wife Gerda (Alicia Vikander), also a painter. They are an attractive pair, and a little later in the film Einar reveals they have been married six years. But on the morning mentioned, Einar pulls Gerda back into bed with him, and it is evident that romantic love and mutual physical attraction are still very much alive for both of them.
But the main plot of the film deals with Einar’s growing realization of how much he enjoys dressing up as a woman and, after going to a ball dressed as the female Lili, how much he desires to act like one. As can be imagined, this places a terrible strain on their marriage.
After Gerda gains fame painting portraits of Lili (not revealing they are of Einar made up as a woman) and the couple go to Paris for an exhibition of her work, Gerda comes back to the apartment they are sharing to find her husband, in the guise of Lili, arranging the supper table.
Gerda tells Lili that yo (a gender-neutral pronoun suggested by one transgender person to refer to people like Einar/Lili) should have come with her to the gallery, that “we do these things together!” But Lili responds, “That’s you and Einar.” To which Gerda bursts out, “Stop playing that stupid, stupid game! . . . Not everything’s about you! I need to see Einar. . . . I need my husband. Just get him!” Lili sorrowfully says, “I can’t.” But Gerda insists, “I want to talk to my husband. I want to hold my husband. I need him. Can you get him? Can you at least try?”
Although the pain of the spouses’ growing frustration is expressed mainly by Gerda, yo feels it too and continues to love Gerda, but now in a different way, no longer in the romantic male-female manner that was displayed sexually earlier in the film. After Gerda later says to yo (dressed as Einar), “I’m sorry—I don’t know how to hold on to you any longer,” yo responds I know. But I love you and I’m going to find an answer.” Yo then goes to a Paris library and researches books such as The Normal and Abnormal Man and A Scientific Study of Sexual Immorality.
But as her husband continues to struggle and eventually has two sex-change operations—the first to remove “the male parts entirely”; the second is to “construct a vagina”—it is Gerda that displays the most love. Before the second operation, Gerda arrives at the Dresden clinic where the operation is to take place. The film script then reads as follows:
Gerda lays her head in Lili’s lap, tired with anxiety. Lili strokes her hair. We feel the depth of love between them.
You heard my wish Gerda. When no
one else could hear me, you did.
Gerda’s eyes begin to fill. She collects herself.
After this second operation Gerda returns to the clinic, and the doctor tells her that Lili has lost a great deal of blood, but at Lili’s insistence Gerda helps her out to the clinic garden. Lili tells her, “You mustn’t worry about me any more,” and adds, “How have I ever deserved such love?”
But, as with Brooklyn, I will not relate the conclusion here or go into more detail about this wonderful film’s other fine points, including the great acting that distinguished both films.
Rather, what remains to be treated is the nature of the love between Einar and Gerda, especially her love.
Gerda’s love might have begun as romantic love, but it blossomed into something far more profound. That type of deeper love was often described by pacifist and helper-of-the-poor Dorothy Day (1897-1980), now being considered for sainthood by the Catholic Church. And she perceived a connection between that love and the romantic love she once had for the man in her life (and the father of her child). In a 1938 autobiographical work she wrote, “It was human love that helped me to understand divine love.” But the human love she was thinking of went way beyond mere romantic love. “At its best,” she stated, it is “unselfish, glowing, illuminating our days, [it] gives us a glimpse of the love of God for man. Love is the best thing we can know in this life, but it must be sustained by an effort of the will. It is not just an emotion, a warm feeling of gratification. It must lie still and quiet, dull and smoldering, for periods. It grows through suffering and patience and compassion. We must suffer for those we love, we must endure their trials and their sufferings.”
Ten years later she wrote, “To love with understanding and without understanding. . . . To see only what is lovable. To think only on these things. To see the best in everyone around, their virtues rather than their faults.” And in 1958 she further stated, “If we could only learn that the only important thing is love, and that we will be judged on love—to keep on loving, and showing that love, and expressing that love, over and over, whether we feel it or not, seventy times seven, to mothers-in-law, to husbands, to children—and to be oblivious of insult, or hurt, or injury—not to see them, not to hear them. . . . not judge, not do anything, but love, love, love.” Such love, she realized was “a hard, hard doctrine.” (For sources of Day quotes, see here.)
The type of love Gerda comes to display by the end of her spouse’s second operation is also extremely difficult and involves, as Day would say, “suffering and patience and compassion.” It is also “oblivious of insult, or hurt, or injury.” Rather than wallowing in self-pity because she has lost the husband she thought she had married, she seeks the good of that person, who has now more fully become Lili.
It is this manifestation of love that transforms The Danish Girl from just a transgender story, important as such stories might be, to a love story that transcends gender classifications. As wonderful as heterosexual romantic love can be, it is far from the only type of love, or even the noblest type, that we humans can manifest. That noblest love puts the good of the other first; it attempts to reduce our natural self-centeredness and, as Day says, “be oblivious of insult, or hurt, or injury—not to see them, not to hear them.” And that love can shine out from all sorts of people, whether heterosexual, homosexual, transgender, celibate, young or old.
In most long-standing loving relationships, romantic love has to be expanded to such a deeper love or it will fade. The years can transform us from the beautiful or handsome young lovers we once were. One or both of us can also suffer all sorts of setbacks that affect our personalities. Sicknesses like cancer or Alzheimer’s, job losses, the death of a child, and all sorts of other circumstances can profoundly affect and change us, and like Einar/Lili Wegener we may come to seem a different person to our loved one. In such circumstances, our mate can bail out.
Another choice is to display the type of love Gerda does and keep loving, reminding one of the wedding vow where each spouse says, “I promise to be true to you in good times and in bad, in sickness and in health. I will love you and honor you all the days of my life.”
Walter G. Moss