An uncompromising, courageous debut about internal struggle

Savina Petkova on Lukas Dhont’s ‘Girl’ (2018)

“I don’t want to be an example, I just want to be a girl”, asserts 15-year old Lara (Victor Polster), addressing a consolation speech by the supportive doctors helping this young girl transition from the male body she was born with. The same point should be applied to Lukas Dhont’s spectacular debut film, Girl, which has seen a turbulent journey from Cannes awards to media outcries.

The story is inspired by Belgian transexual dancer Nora Monsecour, but the cast of Polster (who isn’t trans) and the directorial effort of Dhont (also not trans) stirred critics (both cis and trans) to spit fire at this monumentally personal piece, demanding of it to rectify the underrepresented voices in the film industry — trans critics, actors, and directors. It is important, however, to make a note of this backlash and all its bursting expressions, silenced for too long. The film remains a story of a girl — a personal one for Nora, who was deeply involved in every stage of the process and spoke out to reiterate how this is her tale. Cinema generates empathy that can overcome scepticism, in a way that gives us hope that a person is not an island and that I can tell your story as long as I tell it respectfully, with integrity and love.

Girl is a character study, an ode to a pugnacious trans teen with severe body dysphoria, whose desire for a feminine body parallels her strive to become a ballerina, being accepted in one of the best dance schools in Belgium. While Lara is portrayed as quiet, smiling and dismissive of other people’s assistance, this strength and perseverance also reveals weakness: her perfectionism in ballet and her body-image fixation form an unbridgeable gap between her and the world. Girl is not an unequivocal success story, so it shouldn’t be taken lightly. In the lack of trans characters in film past and present, it seems the demands are set high and it’s often too easy to rub audiences (and critics) the wrong way. By the time we get to see Lara expressing insecurities in front of her compassionate therapist, her chin trembling with disbelief in the fact she is already a woman, the psychological portrait is formidable. With muffled anxiety and inarticulate despair, Polster, a 17 year old newcomer, is exquisite in his emotional depth and somatic surrender (rather than command) of his body to that of Lara. He was cast amongst 500 other dancers and actors in a gender-blind audition and, with the blessing of Nora, he delivers one of the significant physical performances of the year.

Setting the tone of its first half, the film’s opening is drenched in warm colours, glimmers of golden morning sun bathe Lara’s bedroom as she wakes up and stretches. This nascent light embraces her with an angelic glow, but as the narrative progresses, the colour-scheme succumbs to darker shades, nighttime sequences replace daytime, and neon lights overlook another “bedroom” moment she shares with a neighbour boy. Frank van den Eeden’s cinematography is a stunning display of internal conflict, as well as body dynamics, equally distributed between buoyant ballet classes and Lara’s preferred solitude. The camera is, in both cases, immensely focused on the body but not for reasons of fetishisation, but in stating that a trichotomy of bodily attention is what preoccupies the protagonist – as a transgender girl, as a teen girl, and as a ballerina. In such a body-oriented art form and one of unhealthy stagnated traditions in its binarism (male-female), the ballet school is a desired place but also a place of self-torture.

The ballerina’s clique seem welcoming of the newcomer, yet in one self-satisfied act of transphobia, the en pointe dancers seem more like (Suspiria spoiler-alert) witches than tolerant fairy-godmothers. Therefore, Girl’s visual preoccupation with physicality has more to do with investigating a singular experience, rather than being a template for all the spectrum of experiences of a teen trans person. After all, no one would actually like to be condensed to a typified character with “typical” experiences, would they?

As the symphonic sound-design takes on similar musical motifs, repetition and difference govern the narrative construction of the film; Lara uses the same tape to tuck her penis away as for her toes in ballet class, one use marking a self-induced, social construction strain, the other – an institutional one. As her health deteriorates, weight-loss, over-exhaustion, and perfectionism, Lara closes off to her supporting yet overprotective father (cool t-shirt dad Arieh Worthalter). The way he seizes her in his embrace during a climactic outburst mimics the consolation Lara herself offered to her crying young brother Milo (Olivar Bodart). The patterns that weave the protagonist’s daily life are presented with no degree of preference or shame: Lara taping her genitals every day expresses the same habitual nature as taking the same train every morning, as the repetitive elevator sequences. By not omitting Lara’s harmful body rituals, Girl strives for an uncompromising depiction of the detrimental attitude of self-harm. As described by Nora Monsecour herself, the infamous violent end was important as a symbol of her suicidal thoughts. Here, fiction does not necessarily embody verisimilitude or factuality, rather, a therapeutic way for Nora to look back on her past.

If a spectator approaches Girl demanding to make sense of the body, she would be trapped in similar aggression as its protagonist. As a graceful and grippingly bold debut, the film fictionalises an important personal story to eschew the prejudice of blindfolds. While acknowledging that there is a scarcity of transgender characters on film, the thrust of empathy manifested in Girl advocates for inclusion in story-telling, in expression. Or, to quote director Sebastián Lelio” “Cinema is a bridge, it must never be a wall”.

In cinemas now

Savina Petkova

By Savina Petkova

Savina Petkova is a PhD student at King’s College London and a regular contributor for Electric Ghost Magazine. She earned her Masters in Film Studies at University College London and has written for MUBI Notebook, Photogénie, Girls on Tops, Screen Queens, Moving Image Artists Journal, and other publications.