Try as she might, Zellweger’s Judy never goes beyond an impression of the multi-talented artist; her all-caps version of acting failing to allow the role…
Belgian director Lukas Dhont’s extraordinary debut feature, “Girl,” has emerged as one of the most divisive films in recent memory, at least when it comes to its reception in the U.S. The picture earned four accolades upon its premiere in the Un Certain Regard section of last year’s Cannes Film Festival—the FIPRESCI Prize, the Queer Palm, the Camera d’Or for best first feature film and the Best Performance award for its astonishing 15-year-old star, Victor Polster. He plays Lara, a transgender teenager training to be a ballerina while preparing for her gender confirmation surgery. Though the drama received a Golden Globe nomination in the Foreign Language Film category, it fell short of making the Oscar shortlist amidst impassioned backlash from transgender critics, outraged not only by the lack of a trans lead actor, but by the harrowing portrayal of Lara's trauma regarding her own body.
Of course, cisgender actors being cast in transgender roles is nothing new in Hollywood. Just a few years ago, Elle Fanning played a similar role in Gaby Dellal’s “3 Generations,” a movie enthusiastically supported by trans activist Jazz Jennings, whose own gender confirmation surgery is currently being chronicled on her excellent TLC series, “I Am Jazz.” Yet the film industry’s shameful record of exclusion combined with President Donald Trump’s full-on embracement of discrimination have caused many viewers to shun any picture that doesn’t conform to a pure notion of representation both in front of and behind the camera. There is no question that major changes must be made moving forward, yet I’d argue that America’s volatile sociopolitical climate has made Dhont’s film all the more important in how it views the world through the eyes of its heroine, a vividly nuanced character grounded in reality. With the Department of Health and Human Services threatening to eradicate federal recognition of our country’s 1.4 million transgender citizens as recently as this past October, I can’t imagine a better time for “Girl” to arrive on Netflix.
A month after I was moved to tears by Dhont’s movie at the Karlovy Vary International Film Festival, I had an in-depth conversation with the director via Skype last August about the reasons behind his casting decision, his meticulous research process and the vitality of representation in all forms.
Let’s start with Nora Monsecour, the transgender teenager you befriended, and how her aspiration to be a ballerina sparked the concept for “Girl.”
When I was about to start film school in 2009, I read an article in a Belgian newspaper about a young girl who wanted to become a ballerina but was born in a boy’s body. The correct terminology would be that she was “assigned male at birth.” Her school wouldn’t allow her to change from the boys’ class to the girls’ class. I was 18 when I first read that article, and I immediately felt paralyzed by it. There was something inside me that was hyper-attracted to this young woman’s bravery and audacity in saying, “Look, this is who I am. I don’t care what you think I am. This is me in my truest form.” It’s a pretty uncommon thing for a 15-year-old to really be able to go against societal norms regarding femininity, masculinity and the body we are born in. I was three years older than her, and I was not as brave on a personal level. There were many parts of my own identity that I had not accepted at that point, so for me, she was an example of how you could conquer yourself. I contacted her immediately because I felt like there was so much in her story that needed to be told and that was urgent.
Because she had been in the press for a long time, and because the real story was not so very positive—it was really the story of a school against a family—she initially declined my request to talk with me. It was too vulnerable for her at that moment. It wasn’t until a year later that I contacted her and said, “Look, regardless of whether you want something to do on an artistic level, I want to meet you for personal reasons.” So we did, and like I expected, we had an immediate chemistry and became close friends. It was eight years ago that she agreed to make her story into a film with me, but it was always very clear that we didn’t want to shoot her autobiography. I didn’t want to make the story of a school against a student, but she informed the film greatly on a psychological and informative level. She stood beside me from the first draft to the last edit, and I couldn’t have made the film without her. For both of us, this film works as a sort of catharsis. It allowed her to let go of a moment in her life that had been quite intense and really come to terms with every single bit of herself, and it did the same for me. This film was a healing experience for us both.
Nora’s involvement in the film appears to have been a crucial part of your efforts to make this story an authentic one. The resistance of many viewers in America to accept a cisgender actor in a transgender role has been intensified by our transphobic president as well as the film industry’s history of exclusion.
I see how vulnerable the situation in America and in Hollywood is right now concerning representation. I think it is a vital discussion that is going on, especially at a time where you have a president like [Trump] and a Hollywood system that prioritizes stars and bankable systems. We, of course, come from a completely different environment in Europe. This is a film about a trans character, but what speaks to me more about it are the themes of femininity, masculinity, identity and coming to terms with yourself. The title of the film is “Girl,” not “Trans Girl.” I feel that, as a filmmaker, if you handle a subject—in this case, a trans character—with respect, love and the utmost care, then I feel you can portray anything. We didn’t make this film just to be topical. I also don’t believe that a trans person has no right telling the story of a cisgender person. When talking to Nora, what struck me about her story was the beautiful metaphor of her trying to obtain the form of the ballerina—this elegant, classic idea of femininity, and then realizing during the film that this idea of perfection is not necessary to replicate in order to be a woman. She chooses an arena where she has to work with the body, in which the body is vital, while at the same time undergoing a transformation triggered by the difficult relationship she has with her own body. I asked her why she pursued ballet, where the body is the central focus, and we talked a lot about that.
In the film, Lara is always moving—she’s dancing, but she does not really allow herself to feel everything that she is physically feeling in the moment. Nora and I had many conversations about the hatred and aversion she had toward her body and how she avoided coming into physical contact with another human being. I was struck by her ambition and her extreme drive to prove herself, which is something that I find very relatable. When you’re young, you are taught to hate yourself because of what people in society—or what you—deem as different. Then you try to compensate by constantly trying to show everyone what you’re capable of. As a filmmaker, I’m always trying to prove myself, but I had to embrace the fact that I am worthy, I can do things, I am someone, and I needed that affirmation in order to conquer myself. With Nora, she wanted to prove herself by becoming a ballerina, by becoming this idea of a classical, elegant woman, and in the film, we stepped away from Lara having conflict with the outside world, which is, to me, quite an American thing.
If you have an outside world that the character has to fight against, then your main character is a “hero,” and Americans really like that. In this case, you have a character who is fighting herself, and that conflict makes her human. She makes a lot of mistakes in this film, and is allowed to make her own mistakes in part because she doesn’t have to constantly fight the outside world. That’s something not everybody will want to see, but it’s what we decided to show. This is a portrait of one trans girl, it’s not a portrait of a whole community. A lot of the time, I see that when a storyteller is portraying a character from a minority group, all of a sudden people expect you to represent that whole minority group. That is a strange thing to me because I will never be able to do that. Obviously we took a lot of things from Nora’s story—the way she handled dance, her relationships with boys and her relationship with her father, who is also the most loving, charming man in real life—and then we also had the freedom to add things that we felt were necessary.
Whereas films like “The Danish Girl” and “3 Generations” allow the significant other or family members of the transgender character to upstage the narrative, every scene in “Girl” is viewed from Lara’s perspective. Her father (Arieh Worthalter) is a wonderful, supportive presence in every sense. He is a supporting player, as he should be.
You are so right in what you’re saying. A lot of the times a character who is straight and “recognizable” will be placed next to a minority, such as a trans character, in order to give the audience access to them. When I was writing the film in various script workshops, many people told me, “You should make the father the main character, because we can relate to how difficult this situation must be for him,” and I said, “No, that’s a different film. This film should really be about her.” Viewers don’t have to be trans in order to find Lara relatable. The fact she is transgender is only one part of her identity. She is a teenager who wants time to move faster than it is, and that’s a desire many of us share. She’s a dancer, she’s a daughter, she’s a sister, she’s so many things. As a writer, I never saw the need for us to put a character next to her that would be our way in. I always thought that Lara would be Lara and people would relate with different parts of her identity, especially since she’s an active character. She’s someone who goes for what she wants. From the moment this film starts, she will do what she feels like doing, and that’s the sort of character an audience can fall in love with. I saw so much potential in Lara’s character that I never felt the need to expand the role of the father.
I must say that in the script, the father did have more time devoted to him, but as soon as I saw the first edit of the film, I realized that we had to focus the film more on Lara. When I saw Victor for the first time during auditions, I saw that this was a young person who could translate all the things that were going on inside of him through his facial expressions. His face was constantly reacting to things. The DoP told me that we had to keep the camera on Victor’s face because it was responding to everything that was happening in a given moment. I said, “Yeah, but the biggest antagonist in the film is the body, so you cannot only stay on the face. We have to see and feel the body because that is where the film’s central conflict resides.” So we made a compromise. I always felt that Lara would be someone that a very wide range of people would be able to relate with, and that is what made me so emotional during the film’s premiere in Cannes. The theater was filled with so many different types of people, and I felt we really succeeded in giving the spotlight to this young trans girl and having a lot of people see themselves in her.
I had a similar reaction to the film when I saw it with a crowd of varying ages and genders in the Czech Republic, where it received a rapturous response. The audience accepted and embraced Lara on her own terms from frame one. What led you to have no particular gender in mind during the audition process?
During the writing process, I became nervous about the casting because I knew that it was going to be very tricky. Since I knew Nora so well, I constantly had the idea of this person already in my mind. So I thought, ‘Who is going to be able to replace the idea of Nora in my head with another image that will work for this film?’ We did a gender-less casting, which means we saw young boys, young girls and young trans girls for the role of Lara. The one thing that immediately became clear to me was that casting a trans girl for this part would be a very big responsibility in the sense that this film showcases someone in mid-transformation. It required quite heavy scenes that would portray the body’s physicality at a certain moment in the girl’s life, and I felt casting a trans girl who isn’t in full transformation and might never want to remember this period in her life after the whole process is complete was a responsibility that we could not take. I felt it would be impossible to do that with any of the trans girls we saw during casting, and doctors at Ghent University Hospital had warned me against taking on this responsibility, even if the trans girls had agreed to do the film. I realized that I needed someone at a certain distance from the role itself, because of the age, the way we wanted to portray the character, and the necessity of amazing dance skills. There were many demanding layers of this part that we needed to get correct.
We saw 500 young people for the role, six of whom were trans girls, and none of them had every quality that we needed for the part. So we became a little bit scared that finding the leading role for this film was going to be very difficult. Then we started to do the dance casting with our choreographer, Sidi Larbi Cherkaoui. Big groups of young people would come in and begin dancing. About eight months before the shoot, we still hadn’t found the lead and everyone was getting nervous. My co-writer Angelo Tijssens, my co-producer Dick Impens, and I were sitting together when a young boy entered the audition room. It was Victor, and the three of us immediately gave each other a look. There was something about him that transcended gender. It was like this angel had walked into the room. He had this long blonde hair, and didn’t conform to the appearance of either a boy or a girl. Then he started dancing, and he was so incredibly skilled that I may have started crying. It was a very emotional moment for me because for the first time, I saw someone who could replace the image of Nora in my head. For Nora, what was most important of all was not that it was a trans girl portraying her, but that it was someone who could dance as well as her. That was her main requirement. She saw him and fell in love with him instantly just as I had, and told me, “This is the person who needs to play this part.”
What Victor did with the role is not a caricature. It’s not a cis boy playing dress-up. I saw a lot of Variety’s recent roundtables with trans actors, and I completely understand where they are coming from. I understand that for a lot of people, a trans woman is someone who looks like Mrs. Doubtfire, and we’ve now come to a point in which trans roles are being written and it is imperative that we consider trans actors for them rather than remain fixed within the star system. Of course, this is a Hollywood discussion, and it does not represent where we are coming from. We are a Belgian film. I also believe that representation brings a lot of responsibility. They are right to say that people have to think more carefully about how they go about portraying forms of identity with complexity and maturity. I just saw the series “Pose” from Ryan Murphy, and it is absolutely incredible. It proves to me how much trans talent there is in the world, and I am excited about cis roles being given to trans actors. They should be invited to any casting, not only trans castings, because that would be boring.
You’ve also worked with trans youth in your traveling stage project, “The Common People.”
That was a project in which we worked with 48 people, each time from a different city, that we directed. It was really a piece about first meetings, about going back to intimacy, about having a physical connection rather than a digital one. In a way, it was sort of idealistic, and some of the people we worked with were trans youth. That collaboration didn’t really influence my direction of Victor, but it did influence me in the sense that I understood more about the trans experience and the young people’s way of thinking. I also understood that the story we were going to tell in “Girl” was not representative of the whole community. I met a lot of trans youth for whom the body was not that big of a problem, but I also met some for whom it was as much of a problem. It made me think a lot about representation and how I could never represent transgender youth as a whole. I could only represent one person from one experience, and I chose to show Nora’s experience because it illustrated how in our society, body and gender are connected from the moment we’re born. I was interested in highlighting that idea and how dated it has become in a modern context, and I felt I could do that more with Nora’s narrative than with any other.
Victor met with Nora a number of times and they talked a lot, which gave him an insight into her world—not necessarily in a psychological context, because they didn’t go over deep emotions, but more in terms of movements and speech. It was really important to me that Victor could stay natural. He has so much femininity in him that I knew he could move and dance and talk in a complex and elegant way. I cast him for who he is, first and foremost, and then we added to what he already provided. He had three months of voice coaching, which is a training process real trans youth go through in order to learn how to use their voice in the way they want to use it. Victor also danced for three months on pointe shoes because he needed to dance as a girl in the movie, and it immediately gave more elegance to his movements. He is someone who allows the femininity inside of him to shine through, so it wasn’t difficult for him to channel it on camera. Directing him was easy because he’s already extremely disciplined, having danced for such a long time. When he performs, he wants to be at his very best. I knew I could go very far with him and work with him on so many levels. By the time that I started directing this movie, I knew everything I needed to know for his character, and I could hand him any additional information he needed. But he really became her on his own.
Tell me a bit more about your consultation with doctors at Ghent University Hospital, and how that research informed your portrayal of Lara’s preparation for gender confirmation surgery.
At the time, Nora was also a patient of the Ghent University medical team, so I asked her if I could accompany her along the way in order to educate myself on every step of the process. Of course, she gave me plenty of information herself, but I really needed to meet these people—the psychologists and the surgeons—to obtain everything I needed. What I learned from my conversations with them was out of all the young people who come there, only a small fraction of them go all the way with the surgery. The medical team helps them go over everything in order to determine whether this is truly what they want. Those who are unsure decide against it, whereas those who are “complete” are guided through the necessary steps. Patients have years in treatment to decide, through good guidance, if this procedure is right for them. I learned a lot about the physical operation, and I think that the situation is a little bit different in America than it is here. In Europe, you can only start hormone therapy when you are 16, and you can only be operated on when you are 18, whereas in America, you can start hormones earlier. Of course, you need to have the puberty blockers for way longer. “Girl” is a fiction film—it’s not an informative piece or a tool for schools—but I wanted all the information that is in the film to be accurate, not only for transgender audiences but also for those unfamiliar with the process. It became an obsession of mine, because I knew that if there would be a piece of information that wasn’t correct, it would be a big mistake.
There has been some objection to Lara’s climactic decision in the film, which is profoundly dangerous yet understandable in the context of her struggles.
For the nine years this film lingered in my head, and the five years I actively spent working on it, what became the core of the story for me was the way in which Lara sees herself. Every time I met Nora, I saw an amazing, beautiful-looking girl, and I just could not understand how she couldn’t see that. Even though she was outspoken about being a girl and wanting to be a ballerina, when I spoke with her on a personal level, it was clear that she could not accept her body as feminine. That was the thing in the end that struck me the most and stayed with me throughout the making of this film. Here is a person who is taught from the moment she’s born that the body that she has is masculine. This message from society became a conflict in her life that she couldn’t overcome, in a way, and I was interested in saying something about that—whether or not you feel the film becomes a “statement” in the end. I just think it was important for me to go all the way in highlighting that for some people, this relationship with one’s gender and body is a very big problem.
I also really wanted this character to be able to make her own mistakes. I wanted the girl to be human while on her journey toward becoming the woman she is in the end. Though some viewers may disagree with me, I don’t believe the film ever offers Lara’s climatic decision as a solution, and for me, that is important. Cinema exists sometimes to show those things that you don’t want to see—the fantasies, the darkness, the heaviness of some things, and this film doesn’t shy away from that. It is not a fairy tale, and I felt like Lara’s actions say so much. Although everyone around this young person confirms that they see her as a girl, she is unable to see that herself. This film is about the attempt to overcome the pain inside of you, so on that level, I felt that the scene you’re referring to was an important element of the story. “Girl” is also meant to be a physical experience, so this felt like a natural climax.
It’s not imperative that the story continue beyond where it ends, since no further closure is needed regarding her identity. As Lara’s doctor notes, she’s “only confirming who she already is.”
And there are some very important images we’ve placed between that scene and the very end of the film where we affirm that Lara’s decision was not a solution. One of the most powerful images in the film for me to date is the one toward the end where Lara looks at herself in the mirror and there’s this double-ness in the frame. She sees exactly the same reflection as she did before, and her actions didn’t really alter that perception. It didn’t change what she sees at all. There’s a part of her identity that she will never be able to let go of and that will always be there.
No portrayal of gender dysphoria has impacted me more deeply than the shot of Lara staring at her genitals in the mirror, a key example of the film’s frank yet delicate approach to nudity.
This is a character who de-eroticizes her body. She really doesn’t want to feel with her body, especially in a sexual way. So I knew that when handling her body in the film, we would completely de-eroticize it. Of course, this was also important because I would never have shown the body of a 15-year-old in an eroticized way. I wanted to portray her body as the reality, the conflict, the pain, the tool. I made it my responsibility to never show a long shot of the body completely naked, because that way, people could take screen shots and put them online. I wanted to protect Victor by never showcasing an image that is long-distance, so you never see the upper and lower part of the body in one frame. Because we chose to put the conflict inside Lara and not in the outside world, it was necessary to show her body in these moments because it makes the viewer feel confined within her physicality. It is necessary that we share Lara’s sense of feeling like a stranger in her own body, and I am very happy when people who’ve seen the film tell me, “I really felt like I was inside her body—like I was watching my body and thinking, ‘What is my body doing?’” These images contribute to that feeling. They are not used for exploitative purposes.
How did you go about developing the choreography for the dance sequences, which have a relentless quality to them?
Sidi, our choreographer, is currently the artistic director of the Royal Ballet of Flanders, and also did the Joe Wright film, “Anna Karenina.” I asked him to read the script, and he immediately connected with what it wanted to say. He’s someone who really challenges the classical idea of ballet, which I found interesting since Lara also does that, in a way. So for me, he was a perfect fit for the project. Then I had to tell him the difficult truth that I wasn’t interested in showing his choreography. I didn’t want to capture the dance because it’s not a dance film. Instead, I wanted to see the effect of the dance on the character. In that sense, it is more of a physical film than a dance film, and Sidi understood that. We started to create a choreography in which there was a lot of repetition. Since Lara feels that she is stuck in time, she wants to make time go faster, and we felt like putting her in a constant rotation of repetition would breed an adolescent frustration. Spinning around as a sort of tornado was one of the more difficult movements to achieve on pointe shoes, and we felt it would not only be interesting from a technical point of view, but it very much translated to the idea of Lara wanting to speed up time. We also worked with the idea of people touching her body, and how she handles that, but not much of it ended up in the film. In every instance, we wanted the choreography to add something to the narrative, and the frustration brought about by the repetition is vital.
To what extent were you involved in finding the right tone for the film’s score?
My composer, Valentin Hadjadj, is a young guy from Paris who I met in 2013. We worked on my last short film, and he is incredibly talented. I knew that I wanted to work with him on my first feature, and what we spoke a lot about was this idea of the music having a physical effect. I wanted the instrumentation to dig into my skin, in a way, so he went about conjuring a certain sharpness that consistently reminded the viewer of the physical reality within this dance arena. Valentin is classically trained, so writing ballet music is within his skill set, but he gave the score a modern twist just as Sidi did with the choreography and Lara does in the story. Since there would be a lot of music in the dance scenes, I wanted the rest of the film to have a very minimalistic score. Only in moments where I wanted to pull the audience a little bit more into Lara’s head, the music would be utilized, at times echoing the repetition of the choreography. For the scene where she meets her neighbor and tries to have a physical contact with him, I told Valentin, “I want there to be a romantic potential that you will break by using the sharpness that you used in the dance scenes.” When Lara and the boy start kissing, you have this beautiful theme where you can feel the potential of their connection, which is cut short by a sharpness on the soundtrack, reminding Lara of the limitations of her body.
Were you trepidatious going into the film’s premiere at Cannes?
I had seen the film so many times that by the time I was in post, the effect of the film was sort of lost on me. I didn’t know anymore how people would react to certain things, and we were very stressed going into the premiere. You’ve given all of yourself to a project with passionate love, and made something that you’re happy with, but you have no idea how people are going to react to it. Victor is 15, and he would’ve felt very vulnerable if people reacted badly to the film. He sat next to me along with Nora at the screening, so it was quite an intense event. Then all of a sudden, people in the audience started reacting to scenes, and in that moment, I started to regain something that I had lost. The most important reason why I make cinema is to have an effect on people and to show them something that they may not have seen before. This was my first time in Cannes, so when the film ended and the crowd stood up and not only applauded but shouted at us from the balcony, I went, “Maybe this is a normal reaction at the festival.”
Benicio del Toro was president of the Un Certain Regard jury, and when I saw him clapping and shouting, I thought, “Okay, maybe this might be good reception after all.” Then that moment became an extremely emotional one, and I couldn’t stop crying. I knew what everyone around me had been through to make this film, and what Nora had been through to eventually be able to make a film like this and translate her experience to the screen. It was such a powerful day that I will never forget. There was a unanimity in that so many different types of people reacted well to the film. Of all the prizes that our film won—of course, the Camera d’Or is the biggest—but I am the most happy with Victor’s prize for Best Performance because it was given by the jury without consideration of gender, which I feel is a very vital thing. Even though Victor might get criticism when we come to America for not being trans himself, he did such an amazing job, and the award he won was so well-deserved.
In light of the casting controversy for transgender roles in America, what challenges do you think the film will face in connecting with a U.S. audience?
We’ll be premiering the film at Telluride, which is the first time that the film will be shown to an American audience, and I’m very excited about that. With this film now coming to America on Netflix, we’ve been talking a lot about the transgender part of this film. My hope is that when people see “Girl,” they will be just as emotionally effected by it as the audiences in Europe. Yes, we can go into a dialogue about the casting decision, and some people will have a different opinion than my own. Everything in America has to be politically correct, and I understand why that’s the case. It was always my goal to create more visibility around this subject and the person whose experiences inspired this story, so in a way, it’s strange to be attacked for doing the very thing you had set out to work against. I may be cisgender, but this film was made with a trans voice next to me every step of the way, and it’s not only about a trans subject. I hope that when we come to America, this film will radiate the love that we made it with. We just heard yesterday that we are the Belgian Oscar contender, which is great news, so hopefully Netflix will add some cities to its theatrical release outside of New York and Los Angeles. I think position-wise and market-wise, the film is our strongest weapon, and people should really see it before going into a dialogue on whether or not the experiences it portrays are well-represented.
What defines “representation” to you?
Especially when it comes to representation of minority groups, we need to take away the pressure of trying to represent that whole community. We cannot do it all at once, but we can start creating more visibility for those minorities. “Girl” is doing that by portraying one member of a group that has been excluded for so long. I think we need to take our time to represent these identities with care and with diversity, as shows such as “Pose” and “Transparent” have done in the states. Hollywood has gotten a very big wake-up call, and I am really excited to be a part of the debate. What excites me most of all is the idea of inclusion. I am not excited about exclusion and the question of whether Victor can portray Lara is based on an idea of exclusion. Our goal should be one of inclusion—casting trans people in cis roles, and if done properly, casting cis people in trans roles, but not as a method to earn money. I think that if we respect each other, we should do our best to represent each other as well as we can.
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