Friday 8 March 2019

Girl (Belgium/Netherlands 2018: Dir Lukas Dhont)

In Girl's opening scene, 15 year old Lara (Viktor Posner) pierces her own ears in front of a mirror (a minor version of the pain she will endure towards the end of the Lukas Dhont's impressive but problematic movie) while her father looks on, horrified but strangely impressed by her daughter's fortitude. Lara's passive face is something we'll grow very used to seeing over the course of the film's running time.

Lara is a biological boy who defines herself as female and is in the slow process of transitioning. She has successfully applied to join a ballet school (the family have moved home to accommodate this), although not having had the training that other girls have received from a young age, she has a lot to make up in terms of poise, footwork and deportment. But Lara badly wants to follow this career, for reasons we do not fully understand. Is it an expression of femininity, or something which channels the same discipline she is exercising in her transition state? This discipline is self-evident in the hatred of her present male state, often causing herself to undergo great pain and discomfort in an effort to disguise it, a constant reminder of a body she is keen to reject.

Lara is hemmed in by two well intentioned men. Her psychiatrist, presumably attached to her to hand hold during the long process of transition, who wants her to feel like a woman despite the fact that apart from puberty inhibitors she is still essentially male (he seems concerned that she wants to be physically defined as female before she's achieved that state emotionally, and when he asks her about physical relationships, she replies "I don't want to do that with this body."). And her father, tolerant, sympathetic, but carrying the burden of a parent having to accept what is happening, and imposing rules of conduct - no showering naked with her classmates for example - that are probably more for his piece of mind than Lara's.

She also shares her home with her little brother Milo, to whom Lara shows consideration and even maternal feelings, taking him to school and generally looking after him - possibly fulfilling a role left by Lara's missing mother. But there are moments where the tension of the household is disclosed - in one scene when Lara and Milo are having a family squabble he calls her by her born name - Victor - and the subsequent silence between them speaks volumes about what Milo has had to accept at such a young age.

Admitted to the all girl dance academy for a trial period of eight weeks. the others seem tolerant, even welcoming of Lara's presence (although in one horrendous scene this is tested by a teacher asking the rest of the class whether they feel comfortable showering with her). And much of the movie is spent showing Lara's resilience, whether remaining passive in hospital when confronted with the graphic description of the procedure she faces, or during her rigorous training, where she is at the mercy of a pushy ballet tutor who can clearly see the potential in Lara but is frustrated her clumsiness, whether due to the puberty inhibiting drugs or her natural physique?

Girl moves almost inexorably to a denouement where, faced with the dilemma of the leading girl pulling out of the school's big ballet production, an intensely trained Lara is asked to step in, 42nd Street style. It's the moment Lara's been waiting for but by now the audience has a thorough understanding of the pressures Lara is under when she finally gets her chance to deploy all her training, exacerbated when a bullying classmate corners her at a party and asks Lara to expose herself, asking Lara "Should we now see you as a boy or a girl?" Her frustrations at not being good enough, of not being woman enough, finally lead to Lara taking matters into her own hands.

Dhont's film is, unbelievably, his debut feature. It's an astonishing movie with a central performance by Viktor Posner that is unlikely to be bettered this year, a triumph of understated resilience and, yes, glamour, that doesn't ever feel like it's a one character film, even though Lara's spirit is the thing about Girl that you'll remember a long time after seeing it. Disturbing and problematic, it's a film that insists on being taken on its own terms.

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