In Jean Luc Godard’s The Image Book, the venerable cinematic grandmaster proclaims, “The act of representation almost always involves violence toward the object of representation.” Typical of Godard’s aphorisms, the statement is pithy, memorable, and totally debatable, but it offers a compellingly direct challenge to well-meaning liberal dramas like Lukas Dhont’s Girl, a film about a transgender 15-year-old girl directed by Lukas Dhont and starring Victor Polster, both cisgender men. While Dhont and his collaborators clearly have their hearts in the right place, their film ultimately proves Godard correct, proffering a depiction of gender transitioning so grueling and restrictive, it can only climax—as indeed it does—with a moment of (self-inflicted) violence.
Dhont’s film is at heart a story about a girl struggling against her own body. Lara (Polster), a talented ballerina who’s just been accepted at one of Belgium’s most prestigious dance academies, pushes herself to her physical limits, cracking and bloodying her toes in her efforts to master pointe work. (Because she was born in a male body, Lara, unlike her cis female classmates, has never trained on the traditionally feminine technique.) At the same time, Lara is struggling to overcome the vestiges of manhood given to her at birth. While Lara is undergoing hormone treatments in preparation for sex reassignment surgery, the changes can’t come soon enough. She loathes her lack of breasts and cruelly mistreats her penis, often taping it between her legs for the entire day, rendering it irritated and raw.
Throughout, Dhont’s camera fixates on Lara’s lean, muscular frame, frequently catching her in those moments of the day—getting dressed, showering, preparing for bed—when she’s inevitably confronted by the perceived imperfections of her corporeal form. Though Lara is occasionally subjected to humiliating bigotry, most notably when her peers force her to reveal her genitals at a birthday party, she’s surrounded by people who support her transition. She has a loving father (Arieh Worthalter), empathetic psychiatrist (Valentijn Dhaenens), and highly professional doctor (Katelijne Damen). The world (for the most part) accepts her as a girl, but she can’t accept herself.
This is a perfectly suitable theme for a film about a young transgender woman, and it’s one which potentially allows Dhont to explore the tricky psychological nuances of feeling trapped in the wrong body. And yet, in practice, Girl‘s treatment of Lara is narrow and grindingly miserable. Her only interest appears to be ballet, yet the film never gives life to her ambition, as dance is simply another source of agony and toil. The emotional tenor of Girl can be summed up in a single shot near the middle of the film in which Lara and her family are shown riding a roller coaster. As Lara is whipped back and forth, she’s bathed in the harsh light of the carnival as moody, haunting ambient music fills the soundtrack. Dhont can’t allow his protagonist even this simple moment of carefree joy, as Lara looks less like a teen girl enjoying a ride than a captive inexorably hurtling toward some unknown doom.
In a widely read broadside against Tom Hooper’s The Danish Girl posted on Letterboxd, user Sally Jane Black wrote that the film told “the same story that has always been told, of trans women and men never rising again, never making it past the bottom of the story circle to bring the Gift of the Goddess. Yet that is the story we live, if we’re lucky. We never get to see that.” Girl, on the other hand, allows us to see Lara make it past her emotional nadir, but the moment is nothing if not perfunctory: a shot of Lara walking proud and tall through a crowded subway corridor—a signal to us that she’s gained confidence in her body and escaped her mental morass. But Dhont provides absolutely no context for understanding this moment. It simply happens, without anything connecting it to the story we’ve just watched.
Dhont isn’t really concerned with Lara’s journey to find peace and balance, as he’s interested only in her downward spiral of crisis. Lara becomes essentially a kind of Mouchette-like figure, a miserable creature unable to escape her own suffering except, in the end, through self-harm. Dhont simply inverts the source of the anguish: Where Mouchette had to endure the cruelty of those around her, Lara’s torment comes from deep inside her own mind. Her strong, stable support network offers little relief. For all its touches of genuine empathy for Lara’s situation, including a carefully handled depiction of deadnaming, the film ultimately leaves us with an inescapable and damaging conclusion: that to be a trans person inevitably means to be a victim.