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A performance infused with great stillness and energy from actor/dancer Victor Polster drives Belgian director/co-writer Lukas Dhont’s affecting if uneven coming-of-age tale. Nominated for best foreign language film at the Golden Globes after scooping several awards at Cannes (including the Camera d’Or and Queer Palm), the film has become the focus of controversy regarding both the central casting of a cisgender actor in a trans role, and the wider treatment of transgender issues. Yet, for me, Girl works best when viewed as a distant cousin of Billy Elliot, a tale of fluid teenage identity intertwined with the inflexible discipline of dance.
Having recently moved home with her father and younger brother, 15-year-old Lara (Polster) lands a provisional place at an elite ballet school – a trial period to see whether she can “keep up with the other girls”. Lara clearly has talent, but she has come to ballet late, and her feet are somewhat unprepared for the punishment of dancing en pointe. Born in a boy’s body, she also endures a daily ritual of taping and tucking that seems even more painful than the demands of her classes. “You are already everything you will be then,” a counsellor tells Lara when discussing surgery, projected to follow the hormone therapy upon which she is now embarking. But for Lara, change cannot come soon enough, particularly when her classmates become cruelly inquisitive about her body.
While Lara faces down her fears at school, at home she has the support of loving father Mathias (played with immense warmth by Arieh Worthalter) whose concern about Lara’s wellbeing sometimes clashes with her own need for privacy. Meanwhile, scenes with younger brother Milo (Oliver Bodart), such as the dappled awakening which opens the movie, possess a tenderness and affection that is hard to fake. When Milo calls his sister “Victor” (her birth name) in a moment of anger, the tears that follow feel real and heartbreaking.
As for Lara, she seems to glide through such confrontations with the grace of a swan, her emotions hidden behind the half-smile of her resting face. A scene of Mean Girls-bullying is made all the more powerful by her poised response, her strength and pain distilled into a silent scream that reminded me of Glenn Close’s mesmerising eye-dance in The Wife.
That tension between calm and anguish, weight and levity, has long haunted movies about ballet, from Powell and Pressburger’s The Red Shoes to Darren Aronofsky’s Black Swan, via Dario Argento’s Suspiria. Perhaps that’s why so many of these films deal centrally with transformation; the ultra-disciplined nature of the dance itself requiring tough bodies to become sylph-like visions, defying gravity as they float and fly. In the case of Girl, Lara’s determination to dance through the pain in pursuit of her dreams becomes a motif of self-empowerment – a belief in her own identity that transcends physical restrictions.
Not everyone agrees. Writing in the Hollywood Reporter, for example, Oliver Whitney labelled Girl “sadistic exploitation made for uneducated cisgender audiences to feel like they get it”. A common focus of complaint is that the film somehow fetishises Lara’s body, inviting the audience to stare, just as Lara’s classmates do. Yet it’s hard to imagine how a film about ballet could avoid focusing on the shapes and stretches of the human form. (Incidentally, much of the gazing is done by Lara herself, examining her own reflection.)
More problematic is a visually discreet yet still shocking scene of self-harm, an overcooked contrivance which unbalances the otherwise admirably controlled tone of the drama. Nora Monsecour, whose real-life story inspired Girl, has defended this scene as “a metaphor from the dark thoughts that I had”, and hit back at allegations of inauthenticity by stating that she “constantly collaborated” with Dhont, and “my story is not a fantasy of the cis director. Lara’s story is my story.” Yet perhaps Monsecour’s most telling observation is that Dhont “was really interested in me as a person besides my being trans. He was really interested in how I was as a dancer, and what drives me in life.”
Personally, I think that’s the key to appreciating Girl – to see it as a singular rites-of-passage tale rather than as a mission statement. As Lara says: “I don’t want to be an example; I just want to be a girl.” And while the film may be flawed by some dramatic missteps, it remains buoyed by the surefootedness of Polster’s performance, which is engaging, believable, and wholly sympathetic.
Source: The Guardian
Keyword: Girl review – the struggles of a transgender ballet dancer | Drama films