by Caden Mark Gardner
Dir. Lukas Dhont, Belgium, Netflix
The near-universal praise at the 2018 Cannes Film Festival for Lukas Dhont’s Girl can be viewed as an unconscious admission of the limited understanding that the film industry and most critics have of trans lives and experiences. The film won three awards at the festival, including the Queer Palme. As with many trans films du jour, it was viewed in a vacuum by critics who did not situate it within the broader context of trans representation and misrepresentation through the decades. But even when compared to such recent trans films as Sean Baker’s Tangerine and Sebastian Lelio’s A Fantastic Woman, Girl is a step back. It employs cheap moments of trauma and body horror that evince its director and co-writer’s narrow vision of his lead character and, alongside that, extremely narrow view of transness. This film should fade into obscurity due to its hollow message and the abhorrent irresponsibility of its filmmaking, but it is also, unfortunately, now readily available on Netflix.
The first of the film’s many controversies centered around the casting of dancer Victor Polster, a cis man, in the role of trans teenage ballerina Lara—a character whom we later find out is on hormone blockers and thus medically prevented from hitting male puberty. In choosing the lead he loosely based the film on the story of Belgian trans ballerina Nora Monsecour. Initially, Dhont promoted the casting as “genderless/gender-blind,” a progressive totem for the film’s early champions. The reality is that such casting is nothing new: in 1975, Chris Sarandon was hired to play a trans woman in Dog Day Afternoon despite trans women trying out for the role (including John Waters player Elizabeth Coffey), and trans actress Alexandra Billings briefly had the lead in Transamerica only to have it rescinded so Felicity Huffman could be hired. “Gender-less” and “gender-blind” are empty terms. Dhont tried out hundreds of people for the part, trans and cis, and he chose cis. Polster’s performance and abilities as a dancer have been the common defenses of the casting, but the character is a cipher. There’s not much the audience is allowed to learn about Lara beyond her being trans and a ballerina. To make matters worse, Dhont makes a visual obsession out of her anatomy and otherness.
It is unimaginable that a cis actor or actress in a cis role would be filmed the way Polster is shot. No one should wish such a visual approach taken to represent a trans woman. The film’s “cis gaze” speaks to how much intrusive and clinical leering filmmakers often get away with when presenting a body of otherness. The film has a strange preponderance of nudity, shots focused on Lara’s anatomy, of Lara tucking her penis, and mirror shots, including an image of her shirtless, looking like an impatient child as she takes the hormone medication estradiol and waits for her breasts to develop. Dhont appears to be trying to portray gender dysphoria, to have his audience understand Lara from his perspective. As a result, Lara can feel absent from her own movie; how she views the world and how she has cultivated her femininity remains a mystery. One is reminded of another trans movie, Kimberly Peirce’s Boys Don’t Cry (1999), with the cis-as-trans casting and a filmmaker obsessed with anatomy and othering the subject through a series of mirror and crotch shots. What becomes clear when watching Girl are the rote visual redundancies that reflect a lack of imagination in attempting to present gender dysphoria; Lara is myopically rendered, defined by only a few of her body parts.
It must be noted that Lara is the only trans character and only trans image in Girl. Lara comes from a supportive household. Her father changes jobs and uproots the family to another city, but somewhat implausibly this move does not include Lara being in the presence of other trans people, whether a trans therapist, trans group therapy, an LGBT community center, or any people in the trans community on the Internet. She meets specialists, but where are the other people who go to these specialists? There could have been contrasts to Lara’s experience by broadening the trans presence in the film to show the various facets of transness. It would stand to reason that if Lara has to get all the help and support that she can, then perhaps her father cannot go at it alone and try to seek out trans support groups or connections with other trans people. Instead, Lara’s support system consists of two cis men, her father and her therapist, both always presented in a positive light, and never are their limited perspectives presented as a problem. When there are any road bumps along the way, the onus and weight is all on Lara. Girl grows increasingly schematic in presenting the politics of having and living with a trans body as it bulldozes toward various traumas and an unforgivable ending.
Even before this conclusion, Lara’s gender dysphoria is presented in the most extreme ways. Lara cannot help but leave a path of destruction all over her body, including a penis infection from tucking. Her behavior even jeopardizes her sexual reassignment surgery. Lara fears being called out on her otherness, which is fully realized in a humiliating scene of her being peer pressured into revealing her penis to the other ballerinas at a party. Coming out of nowhere in its cruelty, the scene is played up in such a way that's as outrageous as it is narratively underdeveloped. The trans experience of being othered can often be more subtle and banal; it often means falling into conversations with other people who, while perhaps not wanting to see your anatomy, suddenly feel like they have the right to ask intrusive questions about it. But to call out that aspect would mean to possibly villainize and alienate a largely cis audience, so Dhont goes for one-dimensional, bratty, teenage ballerinas as villains.
Lara’s biggest antagonist, however, remains herself and her body not transitioning fast enough for her liking. In Girl, hormone replacement therapy comes off morelike a roll of the dice than transformative, and Lara’s body never changes despite the film depicting months of HRT. Dhont sees her caught in a gender binary full of dissatisfaction and self-hate; she cannot feel affirmed in how she sees herself without the surgery being completely corrective, even if that means taking it into her own hands. Finally, Dhont’s film takes a sharp, brief turn into horror: in the climactic sequence, using a huge pair of scissors, Lara attempts to perform self-surgery.
In this scene, he builds up and heightens the dread. Lara is left alone in her apartment with low, ominous lighting as she calls an ambulance in advance, and the tension slowly builds as Lara faces away from the camera. She lets out a bloodcurdling scream. She does not die, but the conclusion is somehow more off-putting. Lara is shown in her hospital bed, her father by her side, both smiling. After this, we see Lara back in the world, walking through city streets; she has gotten what she wants. Her impulsive decision is presented as a means to a good end. Quite perversely, the scissors moment is intended to call back to an early scene where, to her father’s horror, Lara impulsively pierces her ears to look more feminine. She reacts with a smile, responding to his shock by exclaiming, “Well, I did it!”
This film about ballerinas, femininity, transformation, and transness is enamored of its many metaphors, however misguided. The scissors scene has since overtaken the casting decision as Girl’s major controversy, which was further ignited when Nora Monsecour recently stated to The New York Times that the scissors scene was not based on anything she did to herself. Nevertheless, Monsecour has continued to support the film, is thanked in the film’s end credits, played a role in the casting process, and has defended Dhont many times. (Everyone has the right to make and support bad art, of course.) The violent climactic act, there for cheap dramatic effect, perfectly distills Dhont’s incompetence in depicting gender dysphoria. Lara is only made interesting when she's clearly unwell and unstable, affirmed and validated for the audience once she hits her lowest points.
Lukas Dhont has spent months defending Girl against criticisms from the trans community, arguing his allyship has the same aims as theirs in “trans visibility.” He argues that the attacks against his film, beyond the casting, are because Lara makes mistakes and that she is not a “role model.” It would appear then that the industry and critical ignorance on the history of trans images in media also applies to Dhont. Some of the most celebrated trans film images within the trans community can be characterized as misfits, outsiders, and rebels, not role models. From Candy Darling and Holly Woodlawn in Andy Warhol’s underground cinema to the fictional sex workers in Tangerine to the real-life doomed ballroom star Venus Xtravaganza in Paris Is Burning, those figures breathed life into experiences not widely seen before on film. They are invaluable, whereas Lara and the film present a potential hazard. Girl is neither malicious nor intentionally seeking to plant the seed for dark ideas on any unassuming trans person whose Netflix algorithm might bring them to watch it. But the film is nevertheless potentially harmful, putting the burden on the trans community to combat the false perceptions and misinterpretations of its images. Sometimes those images and their impact cannot be undone.