Arriving at Cannes in the Un Certain Regard section is Belgian director Lukas Dhont’s Girl, and what a debut it is. The title of the film is succinct and simple, but the story it tells is far from easy.
The girl in question is Lara (Victor Polster). She’s fifteen, long and lanky, and a ballerina. Yet Lara was once Victor and is in the process of transitioning towards womanhood. Throughout all of her medical check-ups is her supportive father Mathias (Arieh Worthalter). He is something of a super dad: he works all hours, cooks, looks after all his children’s needs – for there is also the adorable 6-year-old Milo (Oliver Bodart) – and when Lara gets offered a place at a prestigious ballet school, he moves the family to a new apartment.
Lara’s teachers seem supportive, although on her first day at school there is an excruciating and appalling moment when the teacher asks her to close her eyes while any female student uncomfortable about her being in the girls’ changing room can raise her hand. Apparently none of them is. So, everything is good on the home front and at school.
Only it isn’t, at least not for this beautiful, troubled girl. When questioned, Lara denies any sexual desire. She has been trapped in the ‘wrong’ body for so long that she is unable to release her feelings. Rather than having the usual raging hormones, she is a monument to asceticism – she can’t even break out in a sweat. Compounding the issue is the fact that Lara spends pretty much all day every day watching herself in a full-length mirror.
When Lara turns sixteen and the treatment moves on to a new level, her desire to move forward with her life and her frustration with and repulsion for her own body increases. Everything is speeding up and whirling out of control. She has not had many years’ training on pointes and has to catch up, her feet suffering agonies as a consequence. She wants to up her hormone dosage to hurry proceedings along, but can’t. Her desire to rid herself of her penis sees her taping her genitals up, causing pain and an infection that further delays treatment. As the camera closes in on Lara as she spins and spins, the circles seem to be closing in on her and she risks being crushed.
At the heart of this incredibly moving story is an astonishing central performance from Polster. He is utterly convincing as this troubled young woman struggling to understand who she really is. Though some may take issue with a cisgender actor taking on the role, it would be difficult to imagine Dhont finding a more perfect actor than him. He is strongly supported by Worthalter, who has to be one of the most sympathetic and loving parents on screen. Everyone who sees this will get a serious dad crush. Even Oliver Bodart excels as the younger brother. There’s a wonderful scene in which Lara tries to dress Milo that shows the siblings’ true feelings coming to the surface.
The film moves freely between French, Flemish and English. Lara and her family speak French, but Flemish with neighbours and colleagues, while English is spoken by teachers at the ballet school with no problems for the students. It is ironic that in this polyglot society, the protagonist has so much trouble communicating.
The only issue I had was the fact that anyone thought it would be a good idea to put a young person through the rigours of a competitive and physically challenging dance school while simultaneously dealing with the hormones and treatments. Together they create a seemingly insurmountable challenge for this fragile young woman. However, this is a beautiful film in so many ways and it barely puts a foot wrong.