Note: The following article contains spoilers including graphic details of self-harm.
First-time director Lukas Dhont is standing by his award-winning motion picture debut, Girl, in his first comments addressing widespread criticism of his transgender-themed film by GLAAD and LGBTQ film critics and writers.
“This film is made with a lot of love and with a lot of respect for its character, and in the bigger picture, trans people,” Dhont tells NewNowNext, responding to reviews that called his film “dangerous,” “traumatizing,” and playing “neatly into transphobes’ hands.” Even mainstream sites, including The Hollywood Reporter and Entertainment Weekly, reported on community concerns that the cisgender filmmaker is sending a message of self-harm to youngsters looking for answers about their gender identity.
“Of course, there are very difficult moments in this film,” Dhont admits. “I agree with that. I see that.”
But what LGBTQ writers say what they saw wasn’t just “difficult,” but “cinematic barbarism,” in the words of U.K. trans journalist Cathy Brennan.
Lukas Dhont’s sex-reassignment drama Girl has wowed many critics, but it plays directly into transphobes’ hands, argues Cathy Brennan, part of our #LFF Critics Mentorship Programme https://t.co/Wq02YG1g4Z @TownTattle pic.twitter.com/2x9ZHOWIOf
— BFI (@BFI) October 31, 2018
“It’s trans trauma porn,” declared Mathew Rodriguez in his article for Into.
Note: Very graphic spoilers ahead.
Girl is based on one transgender woman’s actual lived experience. Nora Monsecour is a ballerina whose transition made headlines when she was 16. She met Dhont a decade ago and has been one of his advisers throughout the production. She penned an op-ed in The Hollywood Reporter stating that she fully supports the film. “Girl is not a representation of all transgender experiences,” Monsecour wrote, “but rather a retelling of experiences that I faced during my journey.” However, one experience in particular is an invention by Dhont and his co-writer, Angelo Tijssens.
Throughout the film, Lara, played by cisgender actor Victor Polster, is seen staring intently at her penis, taping it down as she tucks for her ballet classes, to the point where she causes an infection. In a climactic, shocking scene, Lara takes a scissor and cuts off her penis.
“It’s a scene of severe trauma that the film has not earned the right to depict,” Brennan wrote. “Dhont’s portrayal of gender dysphoria is so focused on the genitals that he offers no insight into the psychological facets of trans girl’s psychology.”
“What could have been a thoughtful exploration of a difficult part of a trans girl’s daily life instead uses her body as a site of trauma, inviting the audience to react with disgust,” wrote Oliver Whitney in The Hollywood Reporter.
Dhont counters that criticism by saying he’s received positive feedback from both cisgender and trans audiences, and defends his decision to focus so much of the film on Lara’s body and her feelings of dysphoria. “We really wanted to use the world of ballet as a metaphor, for a system, for a world, that is very binary, and that is very divided into roles for men and roles for women. And then you have Nora, who was looking for her place in there, at the same time dealing with the struggles that she had with her body and her self image.”
Out editor Tre’vell Anderson warned his readers Girl not only doesn’t merit an Oscar nomination, but is potentially dangerous, especially given that the film is making its streaming debut on Netflix on January 18.
“All I can think about,” Anderson wrote, “is the message this sends to the little trans and gender nonconforming kids that might stumble upon this film in their Netflix queue at the top of the year and do what kids do: follow suit.”
While no formal plan has been announced, officials at Netflix tells NewNowNext they are considering adding a warning both at the film’s beginning and end, much like the streaming service did for 13 Reasons Why. Dhont says he endorses the idea as one of “great value.”
“Absolutely. I would absolutely support it,” he says, recalling the reaction of one parent and child who saw his film at the Telluride Festival. “There was a mother there with her gender nonconforming kid, and it was such a valuable thing for them to see it together, and to be able to talk about things. I think this film had difficult moments, and I think it’s good that there is a warning, or that there is just an indication that some of the moments might be might be more difficult for people that are very dysphoric or are going through a tough time.”
But given the extent of criticism, would Dhont consider editing his film or changing it? His answer is no.
“I think that all the choices that are made in Girl are very deliberate and I stand by them,” he says. “I spent nearly 10 years with this. So I spent 10 years of my life caring about this film, caring about Nora, caring about Lara, caring about the fact that this film was going out into the world in the best possible way it could. And I’m so proud of the film and of all of us.”
Girl is among several diverse entries to score a nomination for this year’s Golden Globe Awards. Dhont had just arrived in Los Angeles from his native Belgium for a screening and Q&A when he called us for our exclusive interview.
“We wanted to show this young trans girl in the world of the ballet, which is very binary, and her struggling with that. At the same time, she’s struggling with being a teenager, being a human being, and being a young trans person,” Dhont says of the story, which has wowed audiences from Cannes to London.
His first effort in the director’s chair has won near-unanimous accolades from cisgender critics. Variety called the Oscar hopeful “stunning,” “impressive,” and “much-needed,” but then reviewer Peter Debruge revealed his lack of understanding of transgender issues by calling it a film “about a boy who wants to be a ballerina.”
Now, Girl has Oscar’s attention. Members of the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences have begun voting, and industry insiders call it a shoo-in. The Academy has traditionally heaped a lot of love on cisgender-made trans movies, going back to 1992’s The Crying Game, which received six nominations and won the award for best screenplay. Hilary Swank snagged Best Actress for Boys Don’t Cry in 1999, and Jared Leto won not only an Oscar for his role in 2013’s Dallas Buyers Club but a host of other awards, as well as widespread criticism for a series of glib acceptance speeches in which the actor made no mention of the LGBTQ community.
Like those films, Girl was written and directed by cisgender men and stars a cisgender male playing a transgender girl. That kind of casting controversy derailed a trans-themed project with Scarlett Johansson earlier this year.
“Not everyone can always like everything,” Dhont says. In response to criticism that he and the production team and cast are cisgender, the director told us he is an advocate for trans people telling their own stories and being cast by Hollywood.
“I really am someone who wants to see trans directors directing trans stories, and someone that wants to see trans actors playing trans parts, any part,” says Dhont. “But let’s not fight for inclusion by the tool of exclusion. Let’s fight for inclusion by having everyone at the table.”
Dhont dismissed questions about his lack of consultation with advocates for the LGBTQ community, like GLAAD, prior to the film’s release—or even during its festival run—as owing to the fact that Girl is a foreign film.
“This is a film from Belgium, and I am a Belgian filmmaker, and we made this film in the European context, in the Belgian context,” he says. “This is not a Hollywood production.”
However, he added that did consult a local LGBTQ group, a trans man and psychologists, in addition to Monsecour herself.
Netflix officials confirmed that at this stage, they are working with their longtime partners at GLAAD, but the organization has made its position on the film clear in its messaging both publicly and privately.
In addition to tweeting concerns about Girl, GLAAD’s director of transgender media and representation, Nick Adams, sent an “action alert” email urging recipients to “make OUR voices heard” by attending screenings and using their social media accounts to share articles critical of the movie, which he called “yet another bad trans film.” Adams declined to comment for this report.
It's a banner year for LGBTQ inclusion at the #GoldenGlobes but trans writers say Foreign Language nominee "Girl" is "the most dangerous movie about a trans character in years." Read what trans and queer critics are saying. @TheAcademy @NetflixFilm
— GLAAD (@glaad) December 6, 2018
“I am sorry that I have to ask you again to do the tiring emotional labor of speaking out against yet another terrible film portrayal of our community,” Adams wrote in his November email, which was shared with NewNowNext by one recipient. “As we have seen this year, the fight is worth it and is changing the industry.
GLAAD applauded the result of the aforementioned campaign that convinced ScarJo to not play a trans man in a proposed biopic. Hollywood also took note when A Fantastic Woman, starring transgender actress Daniela Vega, won this year’s Oscar for foreign language film—the same prize Belgium has pinned its hopes on Girl for. It already won more awards than any other entry at Cannes this year, including the Camera d’Or for best first feature film.
And all of those awards were handed out by cisgender critics. “I’m transgender and there are so few of us with the lived experience within the film critic community,” Danielle Solzman, a Chicago-based film critic for Slashfilm.com, tells NewNowNext. She is a member of GALECA: The Society of LGBTQ Entertainment Critics, which along with other groups have been shut-out of screening the film. Solzman is no less adamant about condemning it sight unseen. “We’re the ones who need to see this film the most, no matter how angry it makes us, because that way, we can inform others of how harmful it is.”
Netflix officials stressed that plans are underway to make sure Solzman and other GALECA critics see the film and plan more screenings, including this week in Los Angeles and New York.