‘Girl’, a film by Lukas Dhont and written by Dhont and Angelo Tijssens, tells in many ways two stories. The first story is that of Lara, a 15-year-old transgender girl with aspirations—to become a professional ballet dancer, to recieve hormone replacement therapy and bottom surgery, and to be loved and accepted. The second story is that of gender dysphoria, an experience that many, but not all, trans people frequently experience: generally speaking, it’s a feeling of distress and anxiety stemming from one’s birth-assigned sex not aligning with one’s gender. In fact, violence against the human body is a recurring element in this film, at times to a degree that is painful to watch.
It is important here to point out that Dhont is not trans, and that neither is the actor who plays Lara, Victor Polster. This and other details of them film have raised criticism from trans and queer people. At the same time, it’s also important to point out that Nora Monsecour, a trans woman on whose life the film is fictionally depicted, consulted with the filmmakers throughout its development and has repeatedly defended the director’s choices, both in terms of casting and directorial choices, telling the Hollywood Reporter last December that the film “tells my story in a way that doesn’t lie, doesn’t hide. To argue that Lara’s experience as trans is not valid because Lukas is cis or because we have a cis lead actor offends me”.
As a trans person myself, I’m not about to tell another trans person that they are wrong for being satisfied with how their story is told. To experience that kind of satisfaction is rare, and we alone have the final say in how our lived experiences are represented. At the same time, Monsecour rightly points out in the same interview that ‘Girl’ is not a representation of all trans experiences, and this is important to bear in mind when watching the film.
Hope and violence
The common thread in ‘Girl’ is a wave of optimism and violence against the human body. These forms of violence oscillate between those exclusive to Lara’s trans journey, and harm that stems from her other aspirations. Acceptance and love from her peers is fraught by a cruel slapping game between her and more popular girls and a humiliating attempt at closeness with a boy. Adults around her express worry about the harm she may end up inflicting on her body in trying to learn to go en pointe in ballet a few years later than most girls.
But it is the spectre of harm towards her own body as a part of her trans experience that is especially painful to watch, probably most of all if you are a trans person who experiences dysphoria. She tapes down her genitals, causing a nasty infection. She is warned in graphic detail everything that could go wrong during and after bottom surgery. And the film’s climactic act of self-harm, towards the end of the story, is positively horrifying.
Where the camera stops
Throughout all this, there are brighter moments. The relationship between Lara and her father is tender and supportive. There are also more subtle moments, such as when a couple expecting a child blithely declare the child’s gender, the camera lingering on Lara as we watch her consider these two parents already assigning gender to a child not yet born. Much of the telling of the story rests upon where Dhont lets his camera lie the longest: a steady focus of what feels like an eternity on Lara’s face immediately after she is deliberately deadnamed by her younger brother speaks volumes about the hurt and anger that can evoke. There is frequently intense focus on Lara’s body that at times borders on voyeuristic, when it is clear the director wants the viewer to take this moment in and not look away, no matter how painful it is to watch.
These directorial choices are very familiar. Trans stories told in film are often stories of pain, physical and emotional. Undoubtedly, the trans experience itself can be painful. But it can also be an experience of euphoria, joy, hope, optimism and love. Unfortunately, such stories in film are few and far between, and trans people who watch this film are very likely to be reminded of this fact every time harm comes to Lara, just as they are likely to recall each time a cis actor was cast to play a trans person on screen. Cisgender viewers of ‘Girl’ would also do well to remember that, although Monsecour herself is satisfied with how her story is told, her story is not the story of all trans people, as she herself emphasises.
‘Girl’ is screening with English subtitles at Bío Paradís. Find showtimes and tickets online.
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