THE GODS WHICH confer talent can be very cruel. Sometimes they offer the passion but surround it by so many obstacles, it makes your head spin. In casting a yarn based on the life story of transgender dancer Nora Monsecour, Lukas Dhont’s Girl, a film in French and Flemish with English subtitles, engages difficult gender issues made clear for a festival audience. It is another sterling work on this year’s European Film Festival which is hosted at various South African venues from the end of November.
Lara is the character played in the extraordinarily fine film debut of Victor Polster; all this intense and complex young person wants to be is a girl. But that’s not all. She’s set on becoming a classical ballerina – arguably not only the most difficult form of dance, but one in which the body in a skin-tight revealing leotard is the main tool of creativity. Girl takes you unstintingly through the horrors of the insensitivity of adults, the cruel humiliation of peers and the vicious and lonely internal battles in the life of this character. It takes you through the pain that a dancer – over and above her gender issues – puts herself through in the medium, punishment and training of classical ballet, as it offers a keyhole view of a great dream peppered with approval from one’s elders – be they teachers or choreographers.
As you sit and watch this film unfold, you may think of a photograph by South African photographer, Zanele Muholi, taken in 2003. Part of her Only half the picture series, the work is entitled ID Crisis and is owned by the Tate Gallery in London. It’s a quiet, intimate image of a young black lesbian bandaging her breasts against her body to camouflage their shape. To think of the enormous discomfort such a gesture would entail gives a rich, harsh and painful understanding of body dysmorphia in a gender-fluid context.
Transgender film critic Oliver Whitney in writing for The Hollywood Reporter deemed Girl a “the most dangerous film about a trans character in years” because of its nudity, explicitness and stereotypes which bow to the needs of a Hollywoodised audience. But the question must be asked if a story of this nature is rendered utterly anodyne, does it do something for the issue of trans-awareness for a largely cis-gendered audience base?
Along the lines of British writer Juliet Jacques’s 2015 memoir into the oft bitter and deeply private complexity of her gender, the film is not about every trans-girl. It doesn’t pretend to be. Rather, it’s an intimate, delicate and oft devastating foray into the life and head of its main character, who is beautifully developed as a three-dimensional character through the screenplay as well as the performance. Polster’s interpretation is complemented by a deeply sophisticated and empathetic performance by Arieh Worthalter, who plays Lara’s father, and the cleverly positioned foil of her six year old brother Milo (Oliver Bodart).
There’s a neatness to how the work ends, which complies with the values of the Campbellian understanding of the hero story, but it’s a necessary neatness, which will enable you in the audience, whatever your gender may be, to go home with your blood pressure roughly under control.
- Girl is directed by Lukas Dhont and features a cast headed by Emma Baele, William Banu, Oliver Bodart, Tiemen Bormans, Elke Brams, Anthime Breyne, Zoe Chungong, Nom D’Arte, Katelijne Damen, Brent Daneels, Alice de Broqueville, Jeroen de Cleene, Achille de Groeve, Seppe de Pauw, Zita Demarest, Alexia Depicker, Valentijn Dhaenens, Steve Driesen, Magali Elali, Rilke Eyckermans, Rebecca Nivine Fakih, Finn Fransen, Lara Fransen, Anais Gentjens, Michai Geyzen, Kiran Gezels, Tijmen Govaerts, Ingrid Heiderscheidt, Aster Henderieckx, Virginia Hendricksen, Alain Honorez, Yamuna Huygen, Sophie Huygens, Fiona McGee, Yasseen Chioua Lekbli, Philipe Lens, Emilie Meeus, Romy Mieresonne, Annelies Moens, Daniel Nicodème, Els Olaerts, Charles Pas, Pieter Piron, Victor Polster, Luna Rous, Victor Scarnier, Tuur Sweerman, Hélène Theunissen, Chris Thys, Angelo Tijssens, Husniye Tirpan, Elodie van de Pol, Antoine van der Linden, Amber van Veen, Anke Vanbrabant, Enrico Vanroose, Naomi Velissariou, Marie-Louise Wilderijckz, and Arieh Worthalter. Written by Lukas Dhont and Angelo Tijssens and produced by Dirk Impens, it features creative input by Valentin Hadjadj (music), Frank van den Eeden (cinematography), Alain Dessauvage (editing), Sebastian Moradiellos (casting) and Catherine van Bree (costumes). It is part of the European Film Festival, screening in South Africa during November and December.