Adolescence is this stage of life often portrayed on the big screen, a time when we actively seek to understand who we truly are. It is a natural and crucial state that shapes body and soul at the same time and invites us to take a sharp look at the world but also at ourselves. Director Lukas Dhont’s Girl chooses to address in a very intimate and tragic way the awkwardness, uncertainty and brutality that this period entails especially when different from the norms of society.
Born a boy, Lara – mastered by promising young actor Victor Polster – is 15 years old and dreams of becoming a prima ballerina. She balances her everyday life between a heavy hormonal treatment initiating her transitioning process and harsh days of dancing lessons. Mostly surrounded by girls at ballet school and by boys at home, Lara struggles to deal with her identity and body all together in both parallel spheres of her life.
As a whole, Girl is cleverly built like a documentary with a truthful vision, which enable to rapidly make a connection with Lara. Close ups also reinforce this bond, as the story includes silent conversations with simple exchanges of glances, but somehow the audience understands. Likewise a shaky camera follows the dance moves unfolding a gracefulness and elegance that transport and frenetically spin us around, leaving us out of breath in the end.
To some extent, Lara inherits a sort of candid but funny clumsiness along with a stirring timidity that we can sense in typical coming-of-age characters such as Oliver in Submarine or even Charlie in The Perks of Being a Wallflower, which makes her a very poetic crossover; she is socially awkward, sensitive, constantly trying to fade in the background, while being brave, loving, strong and above all, she feels real. But what makes Girl unique is the way Dhont breaks the classic narrative and impose no boundaries when it comes to describe teenage self-hatred.
On top of that, Girl is a bittersweet tale and carries us along the whirlwind of identity while it makes us rethink the definition of ‘‘genre’’: what really makes somebody a man or a woman? Where does femininity end or begin? All these open-ended questions still accompany the audience once the cinema doors closed, although the main character has already made up her mind. For Lara, being a woman starts with looking like one physically. She feels trapped and incomplete – even though her psychologist keeps apprising her of the negative look she takes at herself.
But first and foremost, the film focuses a great deal of attention on the female body seeing as the lead is obsessed by it. One of the most beautiful and touching scenes in this film displays girls swimming in the psychedelic blue of a pool and allows a total immersion right in Lara’s feelings as she observes in motion the female body she’s longing to have. She can’t stand a bruised body that doesn’t reflect who she really is inside and Girl successfully depicts the striking brutality that Lara inflicts to her flesh. She hates it with a passion that communicates directly to the audience and can’t leave anyone unmoved.
Girl is neither a political film nor a claim (as would be a film like BPM) but follows on from a new wave of LGBTQ+ centric movies which explores a brand new dynamism and bring up a refreshing tone. It’s a sweet and intimate film, that makes an excellent job of not sugarcoating the darkness and cruelty existing within. In truth, Lara’s transitioning process isn’t a source of conflict in her entourage. She benefits from a loving family (a supportive father figure played by Arieh Worthalter) and she’s globally accepted by both male and female classmates (although humiliation still exits). However, radiating violence doesn’t come this time from an external frightening world but from the main character herself, allowing us to reconsider the coming-of-age genre from a different angle.
With Girl, first-timer director Lukas Dhont delivers a poignant and delicate debut feature, that is as shocking that it is honest.
Girl was awarded the Caméra d’Or and Queer Palm at the 71st Festival de Cannes.
by Marie-Célia Cannenpasse
Marie-Célia is from a French Caribbean island, and currently studying applied foreign languages at Sorbonne University in Paris, whilst taking filmmaking courses online. She enjoys listening to soundtracks curled up under a comfy duvet on rainy days, gushing about Kate Winslet or Christian Bale on a daily basis, and crying over the BBC’s adaptation of War and Peace. Her favourite films include Gone with the wind, Super 8, Call me by your name and The Prestige. You can find her on Twittter @MCeliaCR and on letterboxd too @MCeliaCR.