With the release of his rather exceptional debut Girl, Belgian director Lukas Dhont tells the story of a transgender 15-year old, Lara who dreams of becoming a ballerina. Dhont masterfully encapsulates Lara’s (played by Victor Polster) complex emotional world in her desperate attempts to become a fully fledged teenage girl but also further trying to fit in, whilst inadvertently subverting it, the austere, gender specific, body and form perfection-seeking world of the ballet.
Candid Magazine had the opportunity to speak to Dhont a few weeks back to tell us more about his film…
I am going to start with the most obvious question that you probably already got asked loads today… What was the idea behind the film??
(Laughs) You are right that is the question I get asked most.
I’m sorry it’s a boring question, don’t worry let’s move to the next one.
No, No, it fine…I will answer but I’ll try and maybe change it a bit.
In 2009 when I was 18 years… I was just about to start film school, I read an article about a young 15-year-old, Nora Monsecour, that wanted to become a ballerina. I was very drawn to the story and to the ballerina as a person cause of what I was feeling myself that the time. You had this young human being that chose to be the truest version of herself at such a young age and on a personal and professional level I was drawn to it.
Personal, because as an 18-year-old I spent much of my life trying to fit in and I had such admiration for someone who went against the norm in such a binary world that is the ballet. On a professional level, I found the combination of that world, that very binary, gender specific system, the fairy tale of the prince and the princess and the young trans person, wanting to be in there, but having such difficulty from trying to get in and being in there. It said so much about our society… So, I was just immediately drawn to it all.
I've read that Nora was involved in the film-making process.
I initially met her as I wanted to shoot a documentary about her. At that moment in time she didn’t want to be filmed because she was too vulnerable, she was going through some personal things and so then from there idea to turn it into fiction started and that’s what we did.
Something that stood out to me was there was a naturality to Lara’s transition. Victor Polster captured that perfectly.
I think that’s a combination of how we shot the film, the way we wrote it and the actor’s performance. We shot it in a sort of way that we wanted to be there but let the actors decide the pace of how a scene went. Its them directing us, as much as us directing them. It was a constant conversation, for us as a team and them as a scene. A lot of dance rehearsal scenes and a lot of the scenes in the apartment were shot in documentary style. The scenes where filmed as if they were capturing every day moments that were fluid and repetitive. And of course, Victor who was amazing at just being himself, able to stay natural and translate whatever is happening through his face.
How did you cast the film? Where you specifically looking for a trans actor?
I was looking for the right person to represent Nora; to play this part in a mature, elegant way. We saw over 500 people. We saw trans youth, we saw boys and girls, but it was very difficult to find the person to manage all the parts of the role.
Being or looking at least fifteen, someone who was able to dance on a high classical level, the Sidi Larbi Cherkaoui choreography you seen in the film is super high level. Furthermore that person had to full represent Lara's identity and is able to carry the wait of the whole feature. As the camera was constantly on them, they were able to have the right closeness but also distance from those emotional scenes. All of those things together make for a nearly impossible casting. What do you do with that? We had to open it up.
The funny thing Victor (Victor Polster) came to audition for the role of one of the young dancers, when we saw him in the group, we were immediately drawn to him, we felt it was the first person through this long casting process that fitted what we were looking for… he had this amazing magnetism.
Did Victor have to do much to amplify his feminine characteristics?
Young trans teens follow a certain type of voice therapy, to train how to use their voice in the way they want to. So, Victor did that in three months, during that period he also trained how to dance on pointe shoes. To me Victor proves one has both masculinity and femininity, whatever that means, inside of them and you can channel that however you want.
The cinematography, the whole aesthetic of the film is gorgeous, there is a lot of light and light blue tones in most of the scenes.
I wanted a lot of light, a lot sunlight, because in the writing of the script we referred a lot to the story Daedalus and Icarus… with Icarus trying to fly all the way to the sun and his dad being there and his feathers melting and him falling into the ocean. We constantly talked about that and the sunlight being there as a presence. Also I wanted the film to be colourful and not grey or moody or dark. I wanted it to be playful… So overall the lighting for us was very important, like a lot of the blues, yellows, mainly warm tones. They influence certain scenes in the way we look at the character.
There is a lot flesh shown, which never feels gratuitous. The opposite in fact, they felt very appropriate. Was there ever an issue with the actor?
Not really. Victor has been training to become a dancer since he was very young. His body and physicality is something that he has learned to work for. As a performer that is something, he is comfortable with. There were a lot of discussions with him and his parents beforehand… we discussed what we wanted to show, how we wanted to show it and why.
What was it that you wanted to show?
For Nora, in her case. We wanted to make the feel about her and not the world around her. Yes, we used the world of the ballet to comment on the world around her, but I didn’t want concrete enemies in the film, except for the main character herself. I was more interested in that moment in time, of her wanting to to fit in, rather than stand out and the violence we inflict on ourselves rather than the violence from the outside world.
In Nora’s case, the relationship with the body was very complex; as a dancer, as a teenager, as a young trans person. For me it was important to focus on that relationship… So, talking about that made it very comprehensible as we wanted to incorporate all that. It was important to find the right distance of where to film the character in those moments of self-analysis. I felt like for all the things in the film, we could not shy away from revealing the body as you would be shying away from her inner conflict… It’s in the arc of the film, leading to the final scene… its necessary.
The film starts with her having this ideal situation, an ideal life where she seems happy and as the film progresses her life is unravelling as she is getting closer to achieving her goals. What are the tricks you use to heighten the suspense?
We know about the world of ballet as a an intense, very gender specific, very much about body manipulation and form, so we know in a sense that this young person wanted to be in that world that has a sort of a… destructiveness to it. That is very visible… So, we are ready to see the implosion of this character, more and more. From the beginning of the film we see Lara’s radicalness… we see her pierce her own ears… we see how desperate she wants to be a part of that form, that she perceives as female. Then bit by bit we are drawn into her head what she is feeling in that moment. The biggest compliment that we can get for our film, is that a viewer is watching the film from the perspective of her. I find this to be a beautiful compliment because it’s not watching someone, its watching through someone.
Her dad appeared like the most supportive dad in that situation, you wouldn’t have dreamed of a more ideal parent. Yet she still she was unable to open up to him?
It was important for us to have a father-child relationship that was accepting, loving and that didn’t necessarily question the identity of his child. It was a homage to Nora’s real father that is an example of love, care and support. Also I feel we need to see father-child relationships in film, in the media in general, that are an example of good communication. So many times, they are presented as problematic, difficult, loaded with issues. I think we need to see these relationships being more elegant.
There appears to be some backlash on the film from trans people. What do you make of that?
Everyone is entitled for their own view. We are all individuals, talking from our own background and experiences reacting to things accordingly. Art has always been there to react to. I think everyone is entitled to his or her approach. Yet, I stand very much behind this film and what we showed.
What do you think that issue was with this specific critic? (A review by trans film critic Olive Whitney in the Hollywood Reporter).
I have not read the article, so cannot comment. But I would like to stress, that this the portrait of Nora, this is the portrait of one young trans person who I got to know since 2009 and I got to know pretty well. She thinks that this is an accurate representation of what she felt in that moment in time and that’s important… However, overall it’s interesting to see how other people react.
It brings to mind the current debate of whether filmmakers can tell another person’s story or a story outside of our own perspective. But in the case with Girl, having Nora there as a consultant perhaps authenticates the film.
When I first met Nora, she was not ready to speak, yet I thought what she had to say, her message, was important for a lot of people to see and hear. In a way she allowed me to speak for her and I am very happy to do so. One can speak and create stories about anything they want to, if they are done with love, respect and care. The danger is resigning people to speak only about the category they belong to, which is absurd and limiting. It’s a sort of restrictive approach to life, the world which I strongly disagree with. I can agree to disagree with anyone on this. For example, I am so happy that this moment in time to talk about having more female filmmakers and the need for more female voices to be heard. Yet I would like female filmmakers not to only talk about films about women, but stories about everyone and everything.
We need to be aware that trans voices were not allowed to have a voice at the table, but now things are slowly changing, and we want to hear more of them and for the discussions to take on a wider context, not limited to that category that they belong to.
Post Girl, what kind of stories do you want to be telling? Is there anything in the pipeline?
Yes…I’m working a new film, that I am very excited about which I’m writing with the same person as I wrote Girl with (Angelo Tijssens). In many ways it’s a continuation of themes that I worked on, in other ways it’s a complete break from that… I can’t say much about the project, but it’s very much about gender, identity and masculinity.
Girl is out now in cinemas.
Words by Daniel Theophanous @danny_theo_.
Read more Candid Magazine film features here.