Reflections on Gender Issues in Cinema
Critics Confirm Admiration and Support for "Girl"
Cinema has taken on the exploration of transgender issues in such films as Sebastian Lelio's "A Fantastic Woman", Céline Sciamma's "Tomboy" and Tom Hooper's "A Danish Girl", but none with such fascinating detail, rigour and candour as Flemish director Lucas Dhont's "Girl", presented in Un Certain Regard at the 71st Cannes Film Festival.
Dhont was just 26 years old when he completed the film which first he conceived at the age of only 18. Dhont has confessed that during his childhood his father wanted him and his brother to be boy scouts, taking them on camping trips every couple of weeks. "We both hated going. We much rather wanted to act, sing and dance because they felt like ways for us to truly express ourselves," Dont has said. He was confused when he found out that this was seen as "feminine" and more of a female pursuit. Eventually he stopped going "because I didn't want to be laughed at."
When Dhont started film school he read a newspaper article about a young girl, born in a boy's body who was convinced that she was in fact a girl, even if her biology did not agree with her. "Admiration for her was instant. My passion to show a character like this, a courageous youngster, that challenges a society in which gender and sex are inevitably connected, was enormous," he said.
He wanted to say something about how gender is perceived as well as views about femininity and masculinity. The most important aspect for him was the fact that the character of Lara struggles internally and is willing to put her body at risk "to become the person she wants to be … someone who choses to be her true self at the age of 15, which for some people takes a lifetime." Lara, striving to fulfil her passion of becoming a ballerina, at one points says: "I don’t want to be an example … I just want to be a girl."
The power of this first film has been recompensed in the awards round: the Camera D'Or prize for best debut feature, the UCR Best Actor award for Victor Polster who plays Lara, and the FIPRESCI award from international critics. In the original FIPRESCI citation the jury praised the film's "bold integrity in tackling gender issues and displaying incredible poise – from a first-time director."
Also highlighted in the citation was what was first described as "the delicate and touching rapport in a father-son relationship wonderfully portrayed by the two actors" [the father by Arieh Worthalter]. The description after arguments and reflection as well as social media feedback was changed to "father-daughter relationship" to better echo the film's spirit. The jury regrets the delay in reaction due to seeking out the views of jury members and the offence that was caused.
The original motivation was influenced by the notion of a father losing a "son" and gaining a daughter. Polster (a student at Ballet Vlaanderen) was chosen for the role of Lara as part of a genderless casting process. Dhont does not duck the awkwardness of the situation or its ambiguity. Lara has to tuck away her penis using tape to be able to don her leotard and take part in the gruelling exercises. Her "male" toes make it extremely difficult to perform some of the intricate manoeuvres.
Representing characters' perspectives in films of this nature frequently can be confusing and complex. The jury members accept that a child like Lara has always been female even if she was not easy to recognise as such. Her frustrations and impatience are thrown in to sharp relief as she realises her body does not respond easily to the demands and discipline of dance because she was born a "boy."
The jury reiterate their support and admiration for a film that portrays gender, identity and the sheer dogged determination of the main character, surrounded by paternal support and the professional and caring manner of doctors and counsellors which should give encouragement and hope to trans people around the world.
Houda Ibrahim, Joost Broeren, Richard Mowe
on behalf of the Cannes FIPRESCI jury, composed of Michel Ciment, France, president , Elli Mastorou, Belgium, Jennifer Zylka, Germany, Joost Broeren, The Netherlands, Richard Mowe, UK, Houda Ibrahim, France, Pamela Biénzobas, Chile, Neusa Maria Barbosa, Brazil, and Rita Di Santo, UK.