It's a film I watched weeks ago, uncertain that I wanted to review it, the gruesome, horrific ending overshadowing anything positive I was able to take from it.
Girl (2019), a Belgian production directed by Lukas Dhont is apparently inspired by the life of contemporary dancer Nora Monsecour. It's a film I had hopes for, really wanted to like, and initially, did enjoy. The cis actor Victor Polster, playing the swan-like protagonist Lara, is sufficiently convincing as the transitioning 16-year-old wanting to make it at a prestigious ballet school. The casting of Polster has been criticized but for me it at least represents a step up from the performance in the similarly teenage-transgender movie set in Germany, Romeos (2011), and its clearly cisgender actor Rick Okon. Polster's presence is one with potential, in fact the performance is described by critic Mark Kermode as excellent, though I'd argue it's also like the film as a whole, in that it doesn't seem to go anywhere. For that, though, I blame Dhont: I'm still left wondering what the director intended.
From reading the reviews, Girl is a film that's divided critics. The Guardian and BBC critic Mark Kermode defends it as affecting but uneven, though I'm more inclined to side with Vanity Fair's K. Austin Collins, who criticizes the thematic, recurring preoccupation with Lara's body: There are few instances in which Lara either uses a bathroom or sits in her bedroom without the scene becoming a discourse on her body.
Curiously on that discourse, Girl is a film that's about both transitioning and not. Polster's Lara appears to be inescapably the same figure at the end as at the beginning, in both demeanour and appearance. The ballet, meanwhile, is restricted to the intense work-outs – we see little of the production Lara is meant to be working on, its concepts and themes and story line, the things that surely beguile and inspire Lara. Those hoping for a Black Swan-style exploration of ballet as art will be disappointed. With a tantalising pathway missed, we get instead a vision of dance as crucifixion: lots of blood, sweat, and tears in cycles of repetitive workouts. I wonder if, with some tweaks, Girl could just as easily been a film called Boy about a trans teenage boy joining the army and trying to match up with the men in his platoon, with a similar, joyless focus on the somatic pain and the intensity of belonging and fitting in, with a final brutal scene for you to leave the with. Perhaps this will be Dhont's next project.
I hope that it isn't. What started off as an interesting scenario that could have been aesthetically mesmerizing ends up being a study in self-doubt and violent self-abuse. I can't forgive the film its ending, which I found bewilderingly and unnecessarily reductive of what it is to be a transitioning transgender woman.