By Hanna Rab
It is a straightforward, yet ambiguous title in an age wherein the subject of gender triggers so much controversy. However, it is exactly this discrepancy between an idea of gender and the reality of gender what this film tries to address. Girl confronts the viewer with an intercorrelated psychological and mental process, and it does it in a very authentic, subtle, yet bleak and bitter way.
We meet Lara (Victor Polster), a 15-year old girl trapped in a boy’s body. Lara has gender dysphoria and is at the verge of her teenage developmental stages. She is pursuing her dream to become a professional ballerina and moved, together with her dad (Arieh Worthalter) and little brother ((Oliver Bodart) to another part of Belgium. Here, she attends an audition of one the most renowned ballet academies of the country. With some hesitation and critiques about her pointing techniques, she gets accepted for an 8- week trial period. During this time, the ballet academy becomes the prominent décor for Lara’s emotional, physical and social struggles against her masculine body. The institutional hierarchies that are present create a tension that seems impossible to break. Lara is visibly subjected to the social systems and conservative views on the bodily physique at the academy, which makes her ambition admirable, but also gut-wrenching to watch.
Every movement, every fall, every strain of the muscle is captured, when we see Lara dance during the strict ballet training. The clear male-female binary creates a sense of discomfort from the start, but the director, Lukas Dhont, hasn’t been afraid to tackle these issues from a very personal perspective. The film is leading us through ballet class after ballet class, with Lara becoming impatient, frustrated and physically weaker every step of the way. The academy, still slightly pessimistic about her performances, but persuaded by her determination, give her the opportunity to train extra hours with a private teacher. In an attempt to keep up with her fellow peers, she gives her full effort in her private spitzen lessons, but her dejection and interiorized battle shines through in her body language.
The performance of Victor Polster is astonishing, he successfully shows the continuation of silent desperations that starts to become more notable from the second half of the movie. He does not only deliver a great performance in terms of acting, but his dancing successfully mirrors the coupled tension of body and psyche, which is a very intimate experience to behold. Both Lara’s introvert and ambitious character traits are conflicting in a way that is visualized, rather than articulated. This is one of the many reasons why this movie is cinematographically very appealing to watch. The way Lara’s facial features unravels the complex thoughts of her transition is done in an incredibly subtle way, yet it explains us just enough about how she might feel. The viewer feels this battle penetrating one’s own body, the intense pain and longing that is visible in the gestures and expressions that she shows in the close-ups.
One of these anxious moments is well captured when Lara goes to a sleepover at one of her academies’ friends. There she stumbles upon the harsh reality of social behaviour. Her friends force her to prove her gender by manipulating her into a situation in which she has to undress herself. Again, the film powerfully narrates the destructive force of group behaviour and Lara’s distress. Here we arrive at a critical point in the movie; Lara’s body and mind fully dislodge, and she starts a mechanism of self-loathing. We see Lara’s exhaustion reflected in repetitive dramatic close ups, silently instructing her body as if it were a machine, dancing in an act of pure refusal. Her intense movements are misleading, as she seems to transcend from her body, longing for an imaginary one. She no longer eats, she no longer sleeps; she is unwilling to nurture herself, as every development will accelerate the progression towards the male body. Eventually, Lara is driven to do the one fatal thing that is keeping her from being herself. It is a drastic and unacceptable outcome for the viewer, but a hopeful one at the same time.
Girl narrates a story that is impossible to experience, but intensely felt in every fibre of the body. A body that is culturally, emotionally and biologically constructed and therefore sits uncomfortably within a conventional neoliberal framework of male-female binaries. I personally hope that the near future will bring us similar movies that can further help us understand that gender isn’t a dichotomy, but a complex assemblage of countless qualities, that together define how we act and what we believe in.