Review: GIRL (2018) [Leeds International Film Festival]

Viewed as part of Leeds International Film Festival and showing at the UK’s leading celebration of LGBTQ+ films, BFI Flare in March is Girl, a film which I have thought about often since first seeing it late last year.

Gathering acclaim at Cannes Film Festival and picking up awards along the way, it was a must-see, especially for those desperate to see more queer stories told on screen. The critical success of another cis director’s output, Sebastián Lelio’s A Fantastic Woman (2017) was seen as a chance to usher in more trans stories, and did much for the cause of casting trans actors in trans roles too.

This feature directing and writing debut of Belgium’s Lukas Dhont, appeared to be a product of this new faith in telling trans stories, but on further reflection, I’m not so sure that the film has the powerful resonance of A Fantastic Woman, nor the ability to tell a queer story without causing concern for many sections of our community.

Girl, which tells the story of Lara, a trans teenager who begins transitioning while also starting at an extremely competitive and prestigious ballet school, is based on the real life experiences of Nora Monsecour (who, incidentally is currently training at Northern School of Contemporary Dance in Leeds, which is awesome!). A stark, family drama told through powerful dance rehearsal sequences and snapshots of Lara’s daily life, navigating adolescence and her intense regime to prepare for gender confirmation surgery. It is worth noting that Victor Polster, a ballet dancer who is cis, plays the part of Lara and was chosen by both Dhont and Monsecour.

Full disclosure. My first reaction to Girl was a generally positive one. I was impressed that I had just seen someone’s first feature, for a start – it seemed impeccably shot and ambitious. I was also, devastated by the third act of the film, and took that wave of emotion to mean that the film had done its job in showing how the transitioning process for trans people is a difficult and testing time and is not taken lightly by anyone – an important message for those who dismiss the great undertaking of moving away from your assigned birth gender as merely a phase or an abnormality to be prayed away. And an earlier moment when Lara’s specialist doctor explains to her and her father parts of the procedure are refreshingly matter-of-fact. When Lara is abused by leering and hurtful classmates in one grotesque instance at a sleepover, we are witness to what is surely an all-too familiar experience for trans people, especially teens and children.

But it is here that I also have an issue. Just as Lara is obsessed with a body that is increasingly alien to her, the film too, is obsessed. There are difficult scenes where Lara tapes up her genitals before ballet classes and then is in yelping pain to remove the tape when changing again later. When the self-multilation in the final scenes is explicit but does not take the time to focus on the repercussions of the act, it sets a dangerous precedent for perpetuating the idea that self harm is merely a part of trans life. It has been and continues to be a daily struggle for trans people and their families, but it left a odd feeling with me when Girl seemed to whimp out of showing the consequences of such a permenant act. With the prevailing complaint by transphobes being that surgery is offered ‘too quickly’ – harmful and outright lie, by the way – I worry that Lara’s sabotage of her prescribed course of treatment will be used as an inaccurate but shocking evidence to grab headlines.

The body horror set-up of those scenes are also undermined by the aforementioned lingering camera that seems preoccupied with Lara’s crotch, as well as female bodies in general. As a cis viewer I felt confused about that the director was trying to get out of this fixation, and as a project that has since had the approval and the support of its real-life inspiration, I’m left searching for clarity on how we should frame trans bodies in cinema going forward. When films about the trans experience are so rare as it is, the weight of responsibility hangs heavy on the trailblazing films that inevitably will be approached as documents of real queer lives. Until the time of relative ubiquity for LGBTQ+ narratives, representing the queer community in general is inextricably linked to our own ongoing emotional and physical journeys.

There’s no doubting that the performances in this film are spectacular and multidisciplined, especially from Polster, and I completely respect Monsecour’s own feelings towards the final film, but as a queer woman actively trying to keep my own innate privileges in check, I believe it’s up to all of us to be honest about our initial reactions to media puporting to tell ours and others stories and to recognise when something just doesn’t feel right.

Special thanks to writers Cathy Brennan and Alistair Ryder for giving me pause for thought on Girl. I look forward to discussing this further, and hope nuanced and thoughtful discussions can be had.

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