Directed by Lukas Dhont.
Starring Victor Polster, Arieh Worthalter and Oliver Bodart.
A transgender ballet dancer undergoing hormone therapy becomes frustrated at the slow process of her gender reassignment surgery.
As a cisgender, heterosexual man, it’s impossible for me to understand the plight of a transgender person, born into a body that does not reflect who they are. That idea has been the central conceit at the heart of the fierce debate around Girl – the debut feature from Belgian director Lukas Dhont. The director is himself a cisgender man, as is star Victor Polster, who portrays trans woman Lara in the film. Since its acclaimed run on the festival circuit, which has come with a selection of awards and a Golden Globe nomination, the movie has found itself at the heart of a tumultuous discussion around queer representation on the big screen.
Lara, as played by Polster, is a teenage girl undergoing hormone therapy and keen to move forward with gender reasignment surgery as soon as possible. She has also enrolled at a prestigious ballet academy, where her lack of formal training from a young age means she has to work doubly hard to keep up with her peers. Despite the support of her father Mathias (Arieh Worthalter) and brother Milo (Oliver Bodart), Lara becomes increasingly frustrated that her life is not going in the direction she desires.
It’s difficult to assess Girl without continuously referring to the debate surrounding it. Dhont based the story loosely on the life of trans dancer Nora Monsecour, who has repeatedly given the film her blessing, saying that it’s “not a fantasy of the cis director”. It would be easy to claim that as a ‘gotcha’ and shut the debate down, but it’s impossible to ignore the selection of queer writers who have condemned the movie, including Cathy Brennan’s angry, eloquent piece accusing the film of “distorting the intimate facets” of her life. Clearly, the film has polarised the community on which it focuses.
There is certainly something a little uncomfortable about the way Dhont’s camera focuses so heavily on Lara’s body, including multiple shots of the increasingly raw patch in her groin area caused by tucking her penis with tape. The character, though, is certainly obsessed with her body, declaring she wants an operation as soon as possible so she can have “breasts and all that”, despite her doctor’s assertion that “you’re a woman, do you have a woman’s body already”.
It’s impossible to doubt the complexity of Polster’s performance. He’s perfect in a role that requires him to portray intense inner turmoil without outwardly expressing himself. His obvious discomfort when a baying crowd of girls at a party demand that Lara show her penis is heart-breaking, but Polster also shines in the clear glee Lara feels when she is referred to without question as Milo’s “sister” when dropping him at school – a rare moment in which she is simply seen as a woman and nothing else.
And that’s before it even comes to the dance sequences. Polster was discovered during the casting process for the film’s background dancers, and his ballet skills form the centrepiece of some of the most impressive set pieces Dhont conjures. The dances are helmed as sequences of escalating tension, with tight close-ups on Polster’s rock solid face as Valentin Hadjadj’s musical score builds to a crescendo, as if something awful is set to happen at any time. While the film spends a lot of its running time focusing on Lara’s quiet contemplation, the intensity of her dancing points at the maelstrom within her.
Girl is an accomplished and potent first feature from Dhont, right up until a climactic scene that is undoubtedly powerful, but has been divisive and will continue to be so. The film is not the triumph of queer representation it was perhaps lauded as when it first premiered at Cannes last year, and there are certain decisions that are questionable to say the least, but Dhont has constructed an emotionally rich portrayal of a trans story that has a tremendous central performance at its heart.
Flickering Myth Rating – Film: ★ ★ ★ / Movie: ★ ★ ★
Tom Beasley is a freelance film journalist and wrestling fan. Follow him on Twitter via @TomJBeasley for movie opinions, wrestling stuff and puns.