Saturday, 20 October 2018


Is there any gender role more stylised than a that of ballerina? Lara is 15, and has been accepted into one of Belgium's leading ballet schools. But only provisionally, because Lara is well behind the other girls, most of whom have started their pointe by age 12. Lara didn't start then, because at 12 she was still a boy. And now, trying to make up lost time, she is further hindered by the fact that her body is still a boy's.

Lara has begun hormonal treatments, and will have surgery when she is older, but she still tapes down her penis when she dances. She has the dual pressures of a new school, as her father as moved her for her ballet, and the dance. And of course, she is about to turn 16, and needs to deal with sexual curiosity and urges.

One of the beauties of Girl, which won both the Camera d'or for first film, and the independent Queer Palm at the Cannes Film Festival, is the way Lara's reaction to this overwhelming combination of stresses is presented: she is given her headway, and the audience is drawn along with her. She hears the warnings from all sides. A doctor promises more intense treatment “if you're evolving enough”; a dance teacher tells her “some things can't be changed, right?” She has a wonderfully supportive taxi-driver father (her mother's nowhere in sight) but not surprisingly, he (a good performance by Arieh Worthalter) has to struggle to try to understand the deep pull of feelings that Lara must cope with every day. But he, like us, has to remain distant from what is inside Lara. And no matter how often the doctors and psychologists tell her she is already what she is, she seems not to believe them. And of course dance merely reinforces that disbelief.

Despite there being, in effect, two movies going on here: a dance film and a trans film, director Lukas Dhont handles this with great subtlety, because he realises just how tightly entwined those two roles are. Director of photography Frank van den Eeden does a fine job of shooting in different tones for the different moments, the different stresses. There is extensive use of mirrors: the way dancers scrutinize their own movements, poses and bodies; the way Lara watches expectantly for the changes in her. It's all blended in to the story of her dance: this is a young teen aware of her own gender identity, not yet sexual, but attempting to become what she is by becoming the most idealized perception of what she is, and the most difficult to achieve. 'You make this so hard on yourself,' she is told, but it is as if she is aspiring to some sort of idealised, fairy-tale image of the girl she is and wants to be, and something has got to give.

That is why the dance story sits at the centre. We watch as she undergoes the torture of the toe: as she unwraps her bleeding bandages, and we realise the power of her desire to be what she is, and the metaphor for the difficulty of doing that. It is the very definition of the classic ballerina story, told in terms of everyday existence as well as on the stage.

The fulcrum of the story is a birthday party with the other girls in her class, where she is humilated by being asked to show her penis. Her body, which has never sweatted while dancing, suddenly begins to; the taping of her genitals has also caused an infection which will interfere with her treatment. The effort to dance, to stay thin, to have that girl's body, is exhausting her. And she meets a boy.

The resolution of this dilemma will strike some, as it struck me, as overly melodramatic; though it is predictable from the instant the scene starts, but metaphorically it works, in that there is only one way that Lara will be Lara. The film's final scene also seems a bit too pat, too slick, too upbeat: it is like a shot out of a commercial, but again its metaphoric point has been made. Lara is Lara: what has become of the rest of her dreams can be intuited, but has been left open.

As Lara, Victor Polster is brilliant: there is a scene when her young brother calls her 'Victor' in spite, to hurt her, which is some ironic comment, but he catches both the will and the frustration of Lara: she is never in doubt about what she wants, but she is an innocent, who needs to take steps, not ballet steps, for herself. Polster and Dhont have created a character audiences will cheer for, will suffer with, and in the end may well understand.

GIRL (Belgium, 2018) directed by Lukas Dhont, written by Dhont and Angelo Tijssens
UK distribution: Curzon/Artificial Eye

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