Trans Viewers Respond to Lukas Dhont's Girl
Lukas Dhont’s debut film, Girl, has been met with both praise and criticism in near equal measure. Having been lauded with the prestigious Queer Palme and Caméra d'Or awards at the 2018 Cannes Film Festival, the film soon became mired in controversy relating to the cis gendered identity of both Dhont and the lead actor, Victor Polster, and what is considered to be its problematic depiction of the trans experience.
Still only in his twenties, Belgian writer-director Lukas Dhont has already made a name for himself with his impressive, tender and controversial debut film. Girl tells the story of Lara (Victor Polster), a determined 15-year-old, committed to becoming a professional ballerina after starting at a new school. Having been born a boy, she faces a world that questions her gender and selfhood, while also also taking on the intense physical demands of a dancer's life.
Diego Aparicio, writer and alumnus of the UCL Film Society, asked two members of the trans community to offer their perspective on the film, its controversies, the question of representing trans experiences on film, and the responsibility that cinema has to underrepresented communities.
Z and E, as they will be referred to, are both part of the film industry and the trans community, and here they offer two notably different opinions on Girl. It’s important to note that Z and E were interviewed separately, and so are not directly responding to one another. This article contains spoilers.
Z: I was surprised when I read a lot of the trans backlash against it. It did really well in Cannes, but the backlash came almost immediately after. A lot of the comments I’d heard from trans people were that they didn’t want to see the film, because they’d read that it was really awful, so I went and read these articles - one of them written by a trans man and another by a trans woman. I was really shocked at how appalled people were by it; all the complaints about how the film lingers on the body, and how it’s all about the body. But it was a dance film, so of course it’s going to be about physicality.
There should be more trans people in the industry, and trans actors should play both cis roles and trans roles, but I don’t think there’s anything appalling about a cis man making a film about trans people. Shutting down the discussion is not helpful. It’s hard to engage with trans narratives when the response is so vitriolic and angry, and dramatic. The two main responses I’ve read didn’t mention, at all, the name of the trans woman whose story the film is based on.
DIEGO: Nora Monsecour.
Z: Yes. They didn’t mention how involved she was in the writing of the screenplay and how supportive she was of Lukas Dhont and the project. She liked the finished result. She thought it really did justice to her story. Her name and her response to the backlash were not even mentioned.
DIEGO: I think she did initially want to stay in the shadow, as it were.
Z: Yes, but those backlash pieces didn’t even mention her existence. So it’s very easy for people to say they’re appalled by the cis director and the cis actor, and their horrible perversion of trans bodies, but there was a trans woman there for years, throughout the making of this film, who supported the project and helped write and create the story. What about her? What about respecting her voice?
I’ve met people like Lara. I’ve met people who’ve cut various parts of their bodies because they couldn’t wait for surgery, just so they could be rushed to hospital and have those parts fixed up. This is something that happens. It’s quite rare, but it does happen, and I’m sure a lot of people know others who have done this to their bodies. A lot of trans people do obsess about parts of their bodies that they’d like to change. I know I did.
DIEGO: Lukas Dhont mentioned at a Curzon Q&A, that Nora never actually did what Lara is seen doing in the third act. Perhaps the scene is not meant to be taken literally.
Z: Nora didn’t do what the character is shown to do in the film, but she thought about it every day and said she was consumed by this obsession. When trans people shut down her narrative, by saying how appalling and violent it is, they are shutting down somebody’s reality. This is a time when the community - everyone in the LGBTQI+ community - needs to really come together, instead of being horrified about the director’s gaze.
Why can’t a gay man make a film about a trans story? We’re all supposed to be part of the same community. When I think about my story, I’ve been with the same person in a relationship for nine years, I’ve been with them from before I transitioned. She’s been with me throughout my transition, they’d do my hormone injections, they were there throughout my surgery looking after me and everything. She knows just as much as I know about being trans so what if she was a filmmaker and she wanted to make a film with a trans narrative? She’d have every right and knowledge and interest to do that, I would say.
And by shutting down the discussion like that, you’re implicitly asking people to reveal quite a lot about themselves. Maybe the directors’ brother or father or sister is trans – we don’t know. I was thinking about Victor Polster as well – I’ve seen interviews with them, and they seem like a lovely person, and perhaps they’re gender-fluid, but maybe they don’t want to publicly reveal everything about themselves and their gender identity.
DIEGO: And especially at the age of 16!
Z: Yeah! It’s like doing that thing which we hate having done to us by others: forcing people to lay all their cards on the table and say exactly what their identity or desire is, in being interested in the story. That’s a really big ask. It’s the same way that trans people are being questioned about their bodies. I don’t know how Polster identifies, but I know he’s not trans. But 10 years ago, I wasn’t trans. Would I not have been allowed to be part of that discussion somehow? I think it’s strange. We really need to stop putting up these massive walls of negativity and hatred.
There are some films that have been quite bad, like The Danish Girl, where the creators really air-brushed a lot out of the history. That film is about a real person who isn’t around anymore today to have their say, but they were trans, and yet they had a lot more happiness in their life than the film makes out; the film makes it all seem very tragic. There were cis straight people behind that one, but Girl felt very different - I think it’s very sensitive, and it made me think about moments in my transition when I obsessed and obsessed and obsessed about top surgery, until there were almost three years when I couldn’t think about anything else. I think it is consuming.
What is being trans, actually? In most cases it involves some kind of change on your body. That’s not to say that trans people need to have hormones or go through surgery – they don’t – but every trans person I know apart from two, they’ve all had surgery or they’re on hormones. So why be so surprised that would be a part of the film: the surgery and the body? And even more so because this is a dance film. I really liked the way they used their dance training as a metaphor, and how Lara uses that to channel her feelings and all that passion.
DIEGO: Dhont seems to make it much more about the inner struggle rather than any outside factors – although some of those are also explored to some extent.
Z: Yes, and how the impatience is portrayed. I remember that from my personal experience. In most countries you have to wait about two years for surgery, so you just feel stuck. Again, this is my experience, and I can’t speak for everyone, but it can feel like you can’t move on with your life until you’re able to change your body. That has a parallel with dancers. A lot of dancers have put themselves through the most awful pain, and have spoken out about eating disorders in the dance world. I think Girl is much more like a dancer story with an extra layer of body obsession. The people who were absolute haters, maybe they should watch more dance films, to see how those films focus on body and body dysmorphia.
E: As a filmmaker or film-lover, I have to say that it’s a very well-made film. It’s genuinely beautifully shot. Cinematically, I can’t really complain. Content-wise, I think it’s a huge failure on the director’s part. I don’t think that cis people shouldn’t make a movie about trans people, but they should think harder and plan better. Girl is a movie that is incredibly identity-focused. If that’s not an identity that you have and you don’t know anything about, you should think twice. The core subject of the movie is “look at this trans person being trans.” Even that isn’t wrong if you’re well-researched and you pull it off, but I don’t think Dhont did.
DIEGO: As far as researching goes, there was definitely a lot of work that went into it. Lukas Dhont had been in touch with Nora Monsecour for the better part of a decade, after he read about her in a newspaper article in 2009, when she was 15. He was really inspired by her courage to fight for who she wanted to be.
E: I’ve heard this, but the way I see it: if he tried to make a movie for the sake of lifting up the community, he really didn’t manage that. At the end of the movie, she mutilates herself. That is so unrealistic! Maybe the real person did do that, but when you make a movie about a marginalised group, you have a responsibility as a content-creator. Media impacts reality. That doesn’t mean it all has to be PC and social-justice oriented, but if you’re making something that will influence the public-perception of that group, even if there is a girl who did exactly that, people who see this film will form that perception of us.
Lara was getting help. She was waiting in line for surgery. Trans people go through so much to get the help they need. Helplines are long and often invasive. No person would ever do what Lara did so close to surgery. If you do what she did, you can never have surgery, because the material the surgeons would use [would go to waste – forever]. It was completely unrealistic.
A lot of cis people say “finally, a realistic portrait. Now I understand” and I’m like “no, you don’t.” She just had to take better care of her body. It was so within reach. Trans people do a lot to deal with their dysphoria: they often bind to the point they break their ribs. I don’t know, maybe if surgery was completely out of reach, maybe they would do that.
Dhont based Girl on a real person, but honestly, I don’t think that matters when you’re making a movie that could have a negative impact on the identity of a whole group of people. It makes it seem as though trans people are so sad and so damaged and spend so much time staring at the mirror, that they would cut their bodies up to get a sense of relief. It’s a misrepresentation of what it’s like dealing with dysphoria. I don’t know every trans person, but I can’t imagine that is a common conclusion, and I don’t think it’s fine when there are so few films about trans people.
Twenty years ago, there was so little representation that it didn’t matter. Boys Don’t Cry ended with the trans protagonist dying, after being the victim of the most terrible hate crime. Back then, it was amazing for trans people – it was humanising because there were no other trans films around at all. The requirements we put on representation evolve with time, and I think that in the present day Girl was a weak attempt at representation.
In twenty years there will be films that portray the happier sides of the lives of trans people, and it won’t matter. Right now, there is enough trans representation around so that people are watching the film, but not enough to justify giving the wrong impression to people outside this community.
DIEGO: What if it’s a turning point? Maybe Girl goes to show that the industry is slowly bringing that wider range of trans characters to cinema.
E: Trust me, I’ll know when we’re there. We’re close, but not that close. In ten years, I think it will be completely different. There will be enough trans content for a movie like this to not say anything about a community. There will be movies about or with trans people all the time. There will be enough movies around to the point that everyone realises that one person’s story doesn’t define the whole community, that everyone’s different. But right now, every time a trans movie is released, it becomes the frame of reference.
If you’re not aware of a community’s wishes surrounding a topic, maybe you’re not well placed to make a film about them. Everybody in the trans community is super vocal about the fact that there are very talented trans actors to play these roles. Trans people – again, at this point in time– should get to play these characters. It’s not that ‘no cis person shall touch on our holy status of being trans,’ it’s that very few directors are willing to cast trans people at the moment, but when you’re making a film about our community, which at this point in time is marginalised and under-represented, involve us.
[Diego Aparicio is a UCL alumnus and writer of the film blog Observancy. He was a LUX Prize ambassador and part of the Jury at Venice's Giornate degli Autori in 2018. When he's not seeking opportunities to work on film sets, he travels to festivals to write about films that pique his curiosity. Diego is currently Co-Director of Partnerships at the Watersprite film festival in Cambridge.]
Determined 15-year-old Lara (Victor Polster) is committed to becoming a professional ballerina after starting at a new school. Though supported by her father, Lara's adolescent frustrations and impatience are heightened as she prepares for gender reassignment surgery.
Having been born a boy, she faces a world that questions her gender and selfhood, while also also taking on the intense physical demands of a dancer's life.
Based on a real-life equivalent, Lukas Dhont's Cannes prize-winning film is a superb debut that puts trans experience centre stage.
Lukas Dhont’s Girl plays in cinemas and on Curzon Home Cinema from Friday 15 March