Unusual, imaginative, controversial – these are films that will take you out of your comfort zone; they may excite, provoke, or even anger you, but they are not likely to leave you indifferent. Lukas Dhont’s debut feature Girl, Ali Abbasi’s Border (Gräns), and Joachim Trier’s Thelma will all be screened at the Jerusalem Film Festival, which takes place from July 26 – August 4, 2018. Although they are very different, they all involve themes of identity, the dynamic between individuation and belonging, and the experience of coming into one’s own. Here’s my take on all three:
In Girl, Dhont focuses on that most elusive subject, an adolescent girl, as she struggles with issues of identity, body image, relationships, and the pursuit of dreams. Lara wants to be a ballerina, but although she is talented, the path is difficult and the outcome uncertain. Born in the body of a boy, her training up until now has not been the same as that of cisgender girls, so she has a lot of catching up to do, and then there’s the issue of going through her transition (which will involve both medication and surgery) while struggling to thrive in the grueling and competitive environment of a prestigious dance school. A sensitive, intelligent, and riveting film, Girl is illuminated by Victor Polster’s portrayal of Lara, in all her desires, inhibitions, courage, impulsiveness, reticence, warmth, and determination.
Yet it is impossible to discuss the film without engaging in the ongoing conversation on casting. My own perspective is that there should be an active, ongoing effort to change attitudes, end discrimination, and cast transgender actors (as one would any cisgender actor) in male, female and transgender roles. A history of discrimination in casting should not be ignored, and I feel that anyone considering casting a cisgender actor as a transgender character in a film ought to think carefully, have strong reasons for this choice, and as they say on exams – be prepared to support your decision with evidence. While I recognize the difficulty in seeing yet another film in which a trans role is portrayed by a cisgender actor, I firmly believe that the ultimate deciding factor ought to be an actor’s suitability to the role and its requirements. Dhont has stated that he auditioned several hundred teens for the role of Lara, including cisgender males, cisgender females, and trans actors. Yet the attributes necessary for the role of Lara were very specific: it must be someone who can act, dance classical ballet, and has a penis. Polster, a professional dancer, had the qualifications.
For some, a film with a transgender protagonist is very far beyond their comfort zone. Yet those who are not scared off, and come to see the film, may find their understanding of the issue enhanced by Dhont’s film. Lara has, in many respects, the best-case scenario for a transgender teen. She has a loving, supportive family, she’s been accepted to the dancing school that will not only help her achieve her goals but is, albeit sometimes blunderingly, warmly supportive; and she has a caring, understanding doctor and therapist. The relative calm of her surroundings allows the focus to be on Lara, her thoughts, her feelings; emphasizing how painful and difficult it is to feel estranged from one’s own body.
Victor Polster is radiant, conveying Lara’s inner world with a delicately nuanced performance. One of the film’s many poignant moments is when Lara brings her younger brother Milo to school and the teacher asks: “Are you his sister?” Her happiness at this simple question, this symbol of acceptance, the knowledge that she passes, shines in her eyes.
Watching Lara in her daily life at home, in school, in ballet class, I did not see a boy transitioning into a girl, I saw a girl with a penis. Which brings me to another difficult aspect of this film: underage nudity. I have many concerns about the film industry’s exploitation of young people, who have not yet achieved the maturity I deem necessary to make decisions about what they are comfortable with doing on film, and the long-range implications of their decisions. Yet at the same time, body image is such a central issue to this film, that I cannot deny the compelling impact of Lara’s gaze as she looks at her body. Quandary.
It’s an excellent film, that follows its themes with insight and respect, capturing the intensity, beauty, effort, pain, and drama of dance school, as well as the internal struggles of a transgender teen. I did not like the film’s final moments, however, to avoid spoilers I will not elaborate on it here. Talk to me after you see Girl.
Border (original title Gräns), directed by Ali Abbasi, weaves contemporary reality and folklore into an intriguing thriller. Many different borders are explored in this strange, suspenseful film. Tina (Eva Melander) is a customs officer with an extraordinary ability to identify smugglers by their guilty scent. Her appearance is strikingly unusual, and it is clear from the beginning that something out of the ordinary is in play. The art of this film is fantastic, both in its visual representation of character, and in the sense of place. Tina looks like no one you have ever seen before (except perhaps in storybooks), and it’s more than skin deep; it’s about her essence, her identity. Our culture codes her as ugly, but when she walks in the woods near her home, surrounded by trees and animals, there is beauty in her connection to nature.
Tina’s journey is one of discovery. Melander brings a depth to her portrayal of Tina, creating a character with a keen intelligence and warm heart whose personality and dreams have been blunted and muted by the discrimination she has experienced. She is different, and therefore has always believed herself to be inferior. As secrets are revealed, the self and life she has known will be forever altered by this new awareness. By the choices she makes, she will determine who she is to become.
The opening scene of Joachim Trier’s Thelma is one of the most beautiful and harrowing that I have ever seen, the first few minutes could almost stand alone as a short; beautiful, brief, and eviscerating. Which made my frustration with this film grow stronger with every passing minute afterwards, as its internal logic and storytelling is all too loose, full of gaps and inconsistencies. I like my horror tight.
Thelma (Eili Harboe) is a young college student who seems remarkably submissive and lacking in self-awareness. Her naivete is partially explained by her family background, her parents are ultra-religious Christians and very strict; even though she’s away at college, their frequent phone calls keep her on a short leash. Not too surprisingly, Thelma does not socialize much. She does, however, experience strange seizures, and things happen around her; especially once she feels the stirrings of attraction. I had so much faith in this film as the plot was set up, only to be cruelly disappointed. Ultimately, I felt that it was Carrie, with much less blood and more smartphones.
Having said that, there are some really stunning scenes in the film, and several plot themes that had they been followed through, might have been utterly fascinating. Like Girl and Border, Thelma is a film that inspires radically different reactions, and while I left the theatre frustrated, many others walked out on a cloud, enamored with the film. Decide for yourself at the Jerusalem Film Festival.
Belgium 2018 | 105 minutes | French, Flemish | Hebrew, English subtitles
Sweden, Denmark 2018 | 101 minutes | Swedish | Hebrew, English subtitles
Norway, France, Denmark, Sweden 2017 | 116 minutes | Norwegian, Swedish | Hebrew, English subtitles