Reviewing The Danish Girl, The Hateful Eight, and The Revenant – politics and cinema in 2016

Includes mild spoilers for The Hateful Eight, The Revenant, and The Danish Girl. All are in Australian cinemas now.

Despite its undoubted moments of regression, 2015 was a year to admire in terms of progressive conversations about racism, gender, and sexism. There was the Black Lives Matter movement. Europe opened its doors to countless refugees. Caitlyn Jenner was featured on the cover of Vanity Fair. The U.S. Supreme Court ruled in favour of marriage equality. There were conversations about the gender pay gap in the film industry. In Australia, there was an outcry about about the horrifying statistics to do with violence against women.

It is easy to sometimes feel that we’ve come a long way. We pat ourselves on the back, saying that we’ve progressed, that we’ve become less ignorant, more harmonious, better people than we were before. But then the dust settles, and life returns to normal. Institutions like the Academy Awards, which last week was again under fire for having nearly all-white nominees and for omitting films like Carol and Straight Outta Compton out of the top two prizes, continue as they do year after year. The buck gets passed to awards season, the studios, and on and on. No one wants to take the blame for not being progressive, after all.  But awards season, and the film industry at large, continues to perpetuate outmoded politics, supporting films that match them. A film is not deemed Oscar worthy when it premieres, whether it be at the Sundance Film Festival in January, or on 3000 screens all over the United States in December, after all. Most of the time, that starts from the moment it’s greenlit.

Such is the case for The Danish Girl, The Hateful Eight, and The Revenant, three films pedigreed to be Oscar hits (they all have been, in varying degrees) from the beginning of their productions. It’s films like this that make one realise that, despite the good work and (in the case of The Danish Girl) good intentions, there is still a long way to go.

The Danish Girl

Tom Hooper, the director of The King’s Speech, is an undoubtedly talented man, winning Best Director in 2011. But that doesn’t make him the right choice for bringing the story of Lili Elbe, a transgender woman who was one of the first recipients of sex reassignment surgery, to the screen in the form of The Danish Girl. The film is based on David Ebershoff’s novel of the same name, a fictionalised account of Elbe’s life, and is said to be ‘loosely inspired’ by Lili and her wife Gerda (Alicia Vikander). Both are painters in 1900s Denmark – Lili paints landscapes, Gerda portraits. Gerda, who’s work is met with a shrug from buyers, decides to start painting Lili. In Hooper and screenwriter Lucinda Coxon’s version of the story, this event triggers a journey of self-discovery.

I am not trans, and there is a lot wrong in Hooper’s film in terms of characterisation and politics that I won’t attempt to even explain correctly, better left to someone much more knowledgeable than I am. That’s already been done fantastically, covering everything from gatekeeping to sexism to erasure (the film conveniently leaves out that Gerda was a lesbian) here. Hooper’s directorial style is what can be found in any prestige British drama, keeping the voices hushed, gentle, and the tears barely at bay at all times. Coxon’s screenplay, like the novel, is a work that is barely anything but pure fiction, but is riddled with cliches. Despite Vikander giving a beautiful performance, one filled with more depth and tenderness than the superficial dialogue and hackneyed narrative afford her, her role is merely that of the supportive but tortured spouse that can be seen in many an Oscar candidate.

The same, however, can’t be said about Redmayne. To him, being Lili is a performance, an education of how to ‘be a woman’. In the film, Lili ‘learns’ through dresses and stockings and heels, through observing at a peep show (yes, you read that right), and working at a perfume counter; scenes of imitation, of ‘feminine’ gestures (there’s plenty of face-touching) played for comedy. For Redmayne, Lili is not discovering herself. There’s no hint of something deeper, Redmayne indeed feels nothing more than the clothes and make up on the surface. Rather, she’s discovering how to be accepted.

Coxon’s screenplay and Hooper’s direction render Lili as barely a wisp, a paper doll for Gerda to support until it is time to release her into the wind. The moment, symbolised by a scarf being unravelled from around Gerda’s neck by a gust of wind, is one that feels lifted straight from a parody of an ‘Oscar bait’ film. In Hooper’s eyes, Lili was a burden that now Gerda is free of.

 

The Hateful Eight

Tarantino is a filmmaker whose hallmarks are undoubtedly built on that of imitation. It’s not something to only call him out on, like any artists, filmmakers are undoubtedly indebted to other iconic figures in their field. Jeff Nichols’s upcoming Midnight Special looks like a John Carpenter film. Todd Haynes’s Far From Heaven is a direct homage to the films of Douglas Sirk, and Park Chan-Wook’s Stoker was Alfred Hitchcock’s Shadow of a Doubt for the modern day. If we didn’t have influence, where would we learn our tastes, where would we learn what inspires us?

But there is a way to use the past to influence without carrying over the old politics. Quentin Tarantino’s The Hateful Eight, an indulgent western that’s simply a throwing of all his old films in a blender and seeing whatever happens. Tarantino of course has a talent for writing dialogue, but at three hours long, its indulgent past reason, dragging interminably the first half before briefly finding itself in the second and again devolving into a conclusion that feels indeed neverending. In the current film climate of robots and explosions, its interesting to see someone make a film that’s quite literally set in a single room, was shot on 70mm film, and includes an overture and program (albeit my screening didn’t), but it doesn’t excuse the continuing problems with the politics of Tarantino’s work. If this was any other filmmaker, the liberal use of racial slurs and constant gruesome violence against women wouldn’t pass. Jennifer Jason Leigh’s Daisy is quite literally a punching bag for the duration of the film, who’s grisly, powerless fate matches those of the film’s three other female characters. In a more focused film, the violence and irredeemable characters could serve as a reflection of the lack of progress in America, but here it just feels backwards.

The Revenant

Alejandro G. Inarritu’s The Revenant is another film that is undoubtedly influenced by another. The director behind Birdman has again constructed another film that is visually stunning but disconnected, a homage to Terrence Malick’s brand of ethereal spirituality that only aspires to its influences. It’s a lot of window-dressing for what is actually a relatively run-of-the-mill revenge tale. Leonardo DiCaprio, who has perennially played roles that see him be rich and comfortable, finally brings himself down to earth to fight a bear, sleep in a dead animal, and drag himself through the woods pain-ridden.

You know, the normal stuff to get an Oscar nomination.

But Inarritu’s film paints its indigenous characters as inhumane barbarians who are more machine than man, never given the chance to speak. The combination of by-the-numbers narrative, paper-thin characters, and a cumbersome runtime make this an overall underwhelming experience.

When considering all three of these films and their views on race, gender, and sex, one word comes to mind – dispiriting. In 2016, why are we still talking about this, still making people understand why exactly this is wrong? Why is there a film in thousands of cinemas across the world that is so blatantly ignorant, that could have been a moving and true portrait of a trans pioneer, only to reduce her legacy to dress-up games? Why are there films currently making tens of millions of dollars globally that feature women being brutally attacked? Why is there a film up for twelve Oscar nominations that paints a racial group as barbarians? Progress is slow, and we indeed have a long way to go.

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