Helen Tope reviews Girl, showing in our cinema until Thursday 16 May.
Based on the true story of ballerina Nora Monsecour, Girl, by Lukas Dhont, is a fascinating retelling of Monsecour’s struggle. In this fictionalised account, we meet 15-year-old Lara. A ballet dancer in training, Belgian-born Lara has moved with her family to the big city to join a prestigious dance academy.
The pressures of joining a new school are compounded by the fact that Lara is transgender, and about to start gender reassignment. Supported by her dad, Mathias, and younger brother, Milo, Lara has been given the go-ahead to start hormone therapy. Once the treatment is started, the effects, we are told, are irreversible.
Lara already identifies as a girl – her plaited hair and dancer-off-duty wardrobe makes her indistinguishable from the rest of the students. As director, Dhont begins the film with footage of Lara dancing with her new classmates. All dressed in blue, the effect is ethereal, as they spin and dart out of shot. During their downtime, the students crank up some dance music and cut loose. Lara hangs back, shy and uncertain. As the film progresses, the challenges of Lara’s life – her reassignment, and the gruelling routine of the dance studio, are laid out side by side.
Playing Lara, actor Victor Polster comes from a dance background; he is currently enrolled at the Royal Ballet School of Antwerp. Originally cast as one of Lara’s classmates, Dhont spotted Polster and auditioned him for the lead role. A newcomer to film, Polster so impressed at the 2018 Cannes Film Festival, he won the Un Certain Regard Award for Best Performance.
In accepting the rigours of ballet, Lara takes on board all that goes with it. The constant drive for perfection leaves Lara exhausted, with bruised and bloodied feet. It is a complex world Lara finds herself in, and the film suggests, one not suited to her current state of vulnerability. Pushing herself to excel – too hard and to extremes – Lara’s body resists. She collapses mid-rehearsal, and is told that with her weight loss and an infection as a result of taping, she is in no fit state to press forward with her treatment beyond the hormones. In desperation, Lara acts – with potentially lethal consequences.
What works so well for this film, is the unhurried nature with which the story is told. We are given the time and space to learn about Lara – some of her history we piece together for ourselves (no mother, her birth name revealed in anger by Milo). The rest is allowed to develop at its own pace. The relationship between Lara and Mathias is particularly well-drawn – Arieh Worthalter is perfectly cast as Lara’s caring and sensitive father. Terrified by the potential danger of Lara’s surgery, Worthalter finds the tension between Mathias’ desire to support and protect. The arguments between Lara and Mathias escalate, until Lara shuts down, closing herself off even from her family. This is devastating to Mathias, who tries to coax Lara into dialogue. As Lara’s world disintegrates, communication could be the one thing to save her, but she stubbornly remains silent.
In looking at the impact of gender reassignment, Girl examines not only the physical difficulties Lara experiences, but the emotional toll. On being given the go-ahead for hormone treatment, Lara finds herself trapped in a daily ritual of looking in the mirror for signs of difference, her impatience turning quickly to obsession. Combined with the pressure to remain at the dance school, there is little room left in Lara’s mind for calm.
Despite its success at Cannes, Girl has received mixed critical attention in the press, with some arguing that Girl offers a fetishistic treatment of Lara’s body. True, the camera lingers on the body as she prepares for class, or gets dressed, but it is not from a desire to snoop or pry. Lara’s body is effectively another character in the film – its development, its response to treatment – is a key part of the narrative. Far from being voyeuristic, the camera is kept at a respectful distance. Dhont never allows us to pause on any one body part, and indeed, the only body parts shown with any regularity are Lara’s poor, bashed toes. With a film such as this, tone is everything, and Dhont is careful not to overstep. Girl is made with such respect, that the film could never be seriously accused of prurience.
What the film does deliver is a fully-considered story of a transgender teenager. On arrival at the ballet school, one of the tutors asks new students to introduce themselves. When it comes to Lara’s turn, she bashfully says hello. The tutor then, in front of the assembled students, asks the girls if they would mind sharing their changing room with her. It’s easily one of the most shocking moments of the film – Lara says nothing to this, visibly smarting from the hit, but we are left in no doubt of the tutor’s blatant disregard for her, both as a student and transgender person.
At first, the dance school seems like a good place for Lara – a place to focus on her future. Lara has come late to pointe work, so has a great deal to catch up on. She is clearly a good dancer, but lacks confidence in her own abilities (Polster does a great job of conveying that through Lara’s tentative movements). Whilst the other dancers fill the space with bravura, Lara hesitates – as a metaphor, it works beautifully. She seems to get on with the girls well enough, feeling able to use the same changing room and then the shower. But as we move through the film, this progressive environment is not all it seems. At a party, Lara is forced by her female peers to reveal herself to them. She is no longer – and perhaps never was – one of the girls.
Girl asks us to examine at our own prejudice. In showing the implications of gender reassignment in such a truthful way, we are challenged to consider what our views on the subject really are. In a bid to remain unbiased, the film never depicts gender reassignment as the answer to all of Lara’s problems – there are issues in her home life and her own attitude towards herself, which won’t go away once the anaesthetic has worn off.
Dhont takes the responsibility of telling this story and creates a film of real depth and beauty. In Lara, we have a character whose vulnerability and charm makes her utterly compelling. Victor Polster, in his first screen appearance, gives us a great performance – Lara’s emotions are held under the surface until she dances. The stuttering, uncertain way in which Lara moves – with brief moments of joy where she lets go, just for a moment – is thanks to Polster’s understanding of how the body expresses emotion. It’s clear, watching this film, that the part of Lara could not have been played by anyone else.
In the end, the film doesn’t offer a Hollywood-style resolution. Dhont expects us to leave the cinema perhaps better informed than we were, but the film’s purpose is not to lecture. Taken as a piece of narrative, Girl works tremendously well – and its refusal to editorialise Lara’s struggle allows the audience to consider their own response to what they have just seen. Told with intelligence and empathy, the story at the heart of Girl is not whether the journey should be undertaken, but how it can be travelled better.