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Victor Polster in Girl. Image: Match Factory

Editor’s note: This piece contains spoilers for Girl, as well as discussion and explicit description of self-harm.

The sense of responsibility in the portrayal of transgender narratives is a complex one. We are a community in need of representation, with a history of misrepresentation. Public hunger for our stories also continues to grow. There is a fascination with accessing intimacy to the unknown. Lukas Dhont’s Palme D’Or winning Belgian film Girl provides access to one story of one girl. Inspired by the real life story of ballerina Nora Monsecour, the film brings with it the gaze of those wanting to see transness up close.

The assault on Lara’s body begins early. In a tender opening scene, after being gently woken by her little brother, she moves to the mirror and calmly pierces her own ears, her concerned father watching on. We move with Lara and her body as she dances with an elite ballet school, stretching and pushing herself as she learns pointe for the first time, with increasingly bloody feet. We ​watch her change alone, pulling the tape from the skin on her groin, and sipping from the tap the water she has been unable to drink with her penis tucked and taped. It is this private pain, and the consequences of that pain, that drives and builds the story; over the course of the film, the closeness the viewer experiences to Lara’s pain becomes complicity.

It is Lara’s private pain, and the consequences of that pain, that drives and builds the story.

Dhont positions us, the viewer, over Lara’s shoulder. She is a transgender teen, who we see returning over and over to the mirror. We see her naked body, narrow and breastless. We see her unwanted genitalia, drawn into focus time and time again – as she surveys herself, as she dresses and undresses, as she swallows the first pills of hormone therapy, as the camera pans up and down her body. We are made as voyeuristic to her trans body as the mirror is reductive to her sense of self.

The self that is Lara remains elusive, contained by an extreme demonstration of control and restriction. We are shown the expression and frivolity of those who surround her: Her loving father being silly with the kids; her classmates dancing and posing. All the while, Lara remains a shell of tension, even on a screaming roller coaster. The progression of tension leads her further from self and further from the medical transition she is pursuing. The doctors tell her when she starts to lose weight that surgery won’t be possible ‘if she continues to undermine her body.’

The demands on Lara only increase as she tapes herself, dances harder, eats less, stretches longer. In the bathroom where she changes alone, she opens a high, narrow window to try and get some air, gasping her way to the point of collapse.

The understated dialogue, a restrained soundtrack and this desperation to breathe make everything feel muted and elusive. It is as if sound isn’t really allowed until the closing scene where we are allowed to feel some resolution. Expression doesn’t come either. We never quite get to see Lara. We are kept hoping there will be some acceptance of care and respite to her body, but it never really comes. The tension does culminate, not in catharsis or triumph, but in a methodical act of self harm. That too comes quietly, step by step, audibly mechanical.

It is the scene that has pushed this film into contention and condemnation (Girl’s Netflix release, originally scheduled for January, has been delayed while the streaming service consults on an advisory note to play before the film). Lara makes an emergency call, applies ice to her groin, places a gag in her mouth and then cuts her penis with a pair of scissors. We don’t see it – the mirror does – but we do hear it and her pain as she bites down.

The scene also deviates from the narrative of Monsecour’s real life. To write this in, something that did not happen – the cutting of a penis as plot point, used as a culmination of extreme assault to the body, the trans body, the trans body of a girl with a penis – it is ugly. Girl is not a biopic of Monsecour, but still – written in by two young cis men (Dhont and Angelo Tijssens), it is objectification in the guise of empathy. It is them with their bodies, imagining transness and the horror, the horror.

It is objectification in the guise of empathy. It is them with their bodies, imagining transness and the horror, the horror.

We all exist within our context. The context of this film is one of the widespread objectification of the trans body and the cis voice prioritised in the telling of trans stories. There is also a history of accolades given to male actors playing marginalised minorities that they are not. The actor Victor Polster, who played the role of Lara, was selected after a genderless call out for young dancers. He has an exquisite androgyny and handles the repeated composure and exposure with restraint. Androgyny challenges gender in ways I’m not sure the transness of a girl does – perhaps that is what the filmmakers wanted. But a girl is a girl is a girl. They cast a boy to play a girl and then showed her penis again and again. The camera hovers over her morning erection – something unlikely to happen on hormone blockers. We are shown the redness of her skin from taping repeatedly. If this is intended to create intimacy with Lara’s discomfort, it does the opposite, pushing her away and making her only her pain.

There are moments of alienation from Lara’s peers and teachers, where we feel her retreat further. There is one teacher who, as the kids go around the room talking about what they have done in their holidays, asks her to close her eyes while asking the other girls to raise their hands if they don’t want to share a bathroom with her. At a school camp, where she sleeps in a separate room, the other girls surround her and one leads in demanding to see her penis, her ‘third leg’ and we return again to the director’s phallocentrism.

It is common for people seeking to self-actualise to be drawn to our transness. There is an apparent obviousness and clarity to the things we must do to become self-fulfilled. If you’re not sure who you are, there seems to be an appeal there. Dhont has spoken of being drawn to Monsecour after reading her story in a newspaper article as a young man exploring his sexuality. The two became friends, and Monsecour is a strong supporter of the film.

Girl almost denies Lara an identity altogether. She is her struggle, her body. The film doesn’t let her breathe.

Girl, however, almost denies Lara an identity altogether. She is her struggle, her body. The film doesn’t let her breathe. Why the film did so well at Cannes, winning more prizes than any other, is symptomatic of the world’s blindness to trans objectification. The film provides intensity and tension, whilst centring the phobias cis men have about their bodies. Lara is given a specialness on screen but her relationship to her body is treated less as dysphoria than as shaming. We are given proximity rather than intimacy and her character is shown with an impenetrable muteness.

We are allowed to watch her, through the camera, as she seeks the mirror. We show up wanting to meet a young woman, but we are served her body. We are indulged, as the bullies are, demanding to see her penis.

Girl, with the stoicism and determination of Lara, captures the weight of transness that is carried alongside all other challenges of life. We are with her as she experiences tenderness and love and support alongside ignorance and alienation. We witness the simultaneous maturity and immaturity of an adolescent. We learn the journey of a dancer, who made a career as a ballerina when she was told she wasn’t allowed to. But what Girl captures more than anything else, is the cis gaze on the trans body – and in that, as viewers, we become complicit.

Girl is currently screening as part of the Alliance Française French Film Festival in various cities.