Director: Lukas Dhont
Cast: Victor Polster
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Cinema’s power lies in its ability to generate empathy, to open up other’s experiences; like the simple pleasure of talking to someone else, it encourages understanding, exposes you to new perspectives, and pushes you to think about your own attitudes and behaviour. That’s partly why culture is such a vital force in society; it builds bridges and turns mirrors on yourself. Lukas Dhont’s Girl is a film that appears to be doing that, but also defines itself mostly on that level – over the course of the film’s 109 minutes, that mirror is primarily turned upon its own protagonist, in a way that is sometimes uncomfortable and ultimately frustrating.
The film follows Lara (Victor Polster), a trans teenager who is working hard to become a professional ballerina. But, as a late joiner to the art, she faces numerous challenges as she tries to catch up with the others, who have been training since they were very young. Their bodies are more pliable, their feet less stubborn, and Lara is struggling to dance en pointe (on her tip-toes). At the same time, she’s undergoing a treatment of hormone inhibitors as part of the transitioning process, meeting with doctors and therapists and planning to have surgery.
Lukas Dhont’s film has won numerous awards and been praised for its depiction of a trans character, particularly a trans teen, but it’s also been subject to an equally high volume of criticism. The story is based on that of Belgian ballerina Nora Monsecour, who advised Dhont on the project, and there’s no doubting the director’s well-meaning intentions. His use of handheld cameras during dance sequences underline the film’s earnest attempt to identify with Lara – it whips us up in the pressure of dance, the rush of excitement and intimate intensity of responding to music, as well as the precise discipline this particular school of dance requires. But despite these technically adept, lyrical moments, that’s as far as Girl’s insight and empathy seems to go – as a ballet film, it has merits, but as something more, Girl feels limited. In another coming-of-age film, for example, discussions and arguments about everyday things would spill out between parent and child or between friends, but Girl feels strangely lacking in that department, even though her dad is commendably supportive of her. A scene where her brother dead-names her effectively conveys the anger and pain involved, but you wish there were more depth to the people Lara spends time with (you wonder if the film might be improved, for example, by the introduction of an additional trans character).
That’s partly because the film opts for visuals over dialogue. But that’s also because (whether by cause or effect) Dhont takes an interest in Lara’s appearance above everything else. Like the recent Black Swan or Suspiria, this is a familiar story of someone striving for perfection, perfection that, in this case, is intrinsically tied to physical condition. But, unlike Black Swan or Suspiria, that’s not necessarily a metaphor that fits with Lara’s internal story – and Girl repeatedly keeps our focus on the external, when you want it to delve deeper. There are some scenes that are heartbreaking, such as Lara having to close her eyes while the class votes on her sharing their locker room or a shaming experience at a party. But beyond that biological shame, Girl doesn’t explore much of Lara as a person; the dance metaphor, rather, feels mainly like an excuse for some close-ups, not even giving us much of a clue as to why Lara wants to be a dancer so badly.
The movie’s heart appears to be in the right place, as Lara’s counsellor reminds her that she’s already a woman, regardless of the surgery that she doesn’t want to wait for. But this philosophy doesn’t seem to spread beyond that passage of dialogue, which you suspect is a consequence of the person telling the story, someone who doesn’t take us beyond the superficial, physical definition of gender. As a result, the climactic scene, which is rooted in that preoccupation, is shocking, but doesn’t feel honestly earned, despite the commitment of Victor Polster, whom Dhont says he cast in the role because of his dancing abilities. The result is a film that wants to be a powerful story of someone trying to become themselves, but muddles its own message by sticking to the surface. In that aspect, Girl recalls Mektoub, My Love, the latest film from Blue Is the Warmest Colour’s Abdellatif Kechiche, which loses its way in an endless string of ogling shots of crotches and other intimate areas – a film distracted from the story it wants to tell by its own, misplaced perspective.