The skin I live in

Lukas Dhont's debut feature is a moving portrait of a body in transition

Girl Photo courtesy of Sahamongkol Film

The body is a temple. But it can also be a torture chamber, from which escape, while possible, is soul-crushing. Lukas Dhont's Girl is an emphatic, moving story about Lara (Victor Polster), a Belgian trans teen at an elite ballet school who's going through male-to-female gender reassignment. That she has to contend with her own hormones and pre-assigned biological specifics, as well as the fact that her chosen career mandates extreme rigour in how the body should bend and behave, Lara's fight is nothing short of heroic. And in that vein, the film is as well.

Forget the sentimentalised tragedy of say, The Danish Girl (Eddie Redmayne as the first person to undergo a sex-change operation), because this Belgian Girl is rooted in observational realism, anchored by Polster's naturalistic performance (he's a real-life, straight ballet dancer). Lara, 15, is going through a period of pain, physically and metaphorically, but the film clearly shows that she's driven by courage and hope despite those jabs of despair. Most of all, Lara knows that she's not fighting against external forces or prejudices -- at least, not so much -- but against her own internal system, at once her most fearsome adversary and most comforting ally. All of this is heightened by the strict regimen of balletic training that, even to binary characters, demands the stretching of physical possibilities. Most stories about trans people bypass this inward bodily struggle in order to investigate the context -- family, society, law -- against which the characters have to suffer. By looking back inside the person, Girl achieves a kind of unforced clarity and asks a much tougher question: who actually owns our bodies?

When we first see Lara, she looks like a slender teen at peace with herself. She has no doubt -- and we don't either -- that she's a girl. Then she takes off her shirt and reveals her body and we realise that things are more complicated than that; the film is asking us to go with Lara into the uncharted terrain of her own flesh.

For ballerinas, the feet are a source of beauty and sorrow -- the toe-squishing shoes, the weight of the whole body coming down at the tip of a bone. For Lara, her burden is wilier than her nubile friends: namely, the penis. In training, she tapes and tucks it, and soon the area becomes infected. The film shows all of this as a matter-of-fact issue, an obstacle that needs to be dealt with, without any attempt to sensationalise it. The way Lara deals with her body parts, from shins to ears, hair to crotch, is the way most adolescents fret with the unformed, sometimes ungovernable parts that are supposed to be controlled -- only that her stakes are higher, more dangerous. Teenagers are obsessed with their bodies; for Lara, it's not an obsession but a matter of existence and survival.

Most viewers will be struck by how Lara's family, friends and teachers are supportive of her -- they're not out to suppress her desire to go through the change or to become a ballerina. Her father (Arieh Worthalter), a taxi driver -- by no means a bourgeois profession -- is ready to do anything to help Lara reach her goal. Her doctor says flatly that there's no question "we have to confirm and support her".

This is Lukas Dhont's first film, and he shows his potential as a humanist filmmaker in the vein of his compatriots, the Dardenne brothers, down to the way the camera hovers close to Lara and her point of view. But Girl wouldn't have been possible without the committed performance of Polster; the complaint that a trans should play a trans doesn't fly because he's so good that you can't imagine anyone else being Lara. Spending most of the film looking determined, hopeful and pained -- watch the ending closely -- Polster embodies a struggle most of us don't have a clue about and yet, eventually, comes across like a pang of heartbreak.