Lukas Dhont slept through the Oscars. He was in bed with his boyfriend still recovering from the Césars, France's answer to the Academy Awards, which took place a couple of nights earlier. Girl, her direct debut, had been up for a best foreign film She was a preacher who was a story of a 15-year old girl she was training to be a ballet dancer and counted the days until gender-confirmation surgery, would be Oscar -nominated too. What would have been for fairytale?
In May, Girl premiered to standing ovation at the Cannes film festival, winning a prize for her 17-year-old evil star Victor Polster and three more awards including the Caméra dOr. Netflix bought the US release and there was a Golden Globe nomination ("the ceremony was surreal, watching Lady Gaga and her amazing lavender dress"). Then came the firestorm.
Girl had already come under attack as a cis actor. LGBTQ activists also criticized Dhont for fixation on the physical transformation of the central character Lara, who struggles with her body dysphoria and painfully binds her genitals. Then, in December, the trans critic Oliver Whitney wrote to furious essay in the Hollywood Reporter, describing as "sadistic" and "trauma porn" to scene at the end of the film depicting self-harm. Whitney branded Girl "the most dangerous movie about in trans character in years".
The damage appears to have been done. Girl’s Rotten Tomatoes score has slipped, Netflix delayed the US January launch – it’s now scheduled for March 15, the same day as its UK cinema release. And in the end, Girl received no love from the Academy. Does Dhont believe this was because of the controversy? He smiles gently. "No. No. I think there were amazing films in the foreign language category. We just didn't make the cut. "
I meet Dhont in London three days after the Oscars. He looked more like an actor than a film-maker, with tousled hair, cloudy blue-gray eyes, beard trimmed. I had interviewed directors defending films before: they tend to be prickly or guns blazing. But Dhont is all smiles. I have never met anyone even-handed about their critics, though he winces when I say "backlash" calling it "such an extreme word".
How does he feel? Angry? Hurt? "No," he answers softly in rather formal English. "It doesn't hurt. For me it´s important to defend the film, but also important people speak who haven''t been allowed to speak enough in the past. For me, Girl is a document to help trans visibility. I know we have the same cause, these people criticizing the film and me. I don't want to be against them, I want to be together and pushing forwards. "
He also describes Girl as "a document for Nora", a reference to Nora Monsecour, the trans dancer who inspired the film. Dhont met her when he was 18 and she was 15, after he read an article about her battle to switch to girls (To dance as a woman requires en pointe skills, only taught to girls – so to dance professionally she needed to be in that girls' class.)
Her bravery stopped Dhont in his tracks. At the time he was still in the closet; she helped him as a term with his identity. “I think I was looking for someone who could pull me over the edge into authenticity. "He described their relationship as" closer than a friendship. "
Polster are trans. One of the big criticisms of the film is that it 's told from a cis perspective since But Dhont says that he was with him every step of the way: "She was a constant reader of the scripts. She was on set. She saw the edits. ”Back at the start, when they were teenagers, Monsecour told Dhont that she would write her story with him but that she didn't want her name on the credits.
When Girl Was Under Fire, Monsecour, who dropped classical ballet and is now a modern dancer in Germany, stepped forward to defend – and in a sense claim – the film. Describing it as "my truth", she has hit out on critics to attempt to silence her and her trans identity. "My story is not a fantasy of the cis director. Lara’s story is my story. ”As if to test the point, twice during the conversation Dhont calls the film's character Nora instead of Lara.
I ask whether, with the benefit of hindsight, it would be better to have included He pulls a face. "For me, of course it would have been easier." Because people would have gone, "Oh, to trans woman was here, I know now it's valid." But he doesn't buy the argument that only trans-film-makers can make films. "Because then you are saying that you can speak about that very specific identity that you are." So he fundamentally believes in his right to tell the story? "Yes. If I did it how I did it, with respect for Nora, where she came from and who she is, then yes I have the right. "
What did it feel like showing the finished film? Dhont lets out his big eyes and lifts his eyes. His composure slips, and he says softly: "You could have filled the bathtub with tears. It was a moment of catharsis. It was extremely emotional for us. ” "Muse," he says, then corrects himself. “An active muse. She participated. "
Monsecour was involved in the casting process and gave her blessing to Polster. "I did not mind if the actor was not trans." She wanted someone who would respect her in an elegant way. ”Dhont describes the casting as genderless: he auditioned 5oo young people, including trans girls. He has previously said that psychologists at Ghent University Hospital's Center for Sexology and Gender (where I was a patient patient) advised against casting a trans girl at a vulnerable point in her transition.
I wonâ € ™ t describe the scene towards the end thatâ € ™ s causing most offense since that would be a spoiler. Monsecour has said the scene is fiction, though it does reflect her dark thoughts at that time. Dhont, too, is convinced he did the right thing by including it. "The film doesn't hide away from any emotions this character felt – good or bad. And I think the movie shows this character a lot of love. I know no, I don’t in any way think that it is a harmful film. I think it’s a very loving film. "
LGBTQ movies being made. "Girl is the portrait of one person. Because there are so few trans stories, every story that arrives, they say, "Ah, so this is the trans experience." Does every queer character have to be a role model? I think it is important to stress the fact that this is a young character, one young teenager, one young trans, one young trans, and one specific relationship. I have to repeat that every time. "You can't attack this movie."
Dhont stands by his work, with absolutely no regrets. Girl in her head for nine years, five of them actively working on it. And he’s done his research: working with Monsignor and her family, with transgender charities in Belgium, with parent groups and the Ghent unit. Still, if he had the time again, would he do anything differently? He shakes his head, but it takes him a few moments to gather the words. "No – and that 's not because of stubbornness or self-esteem. It is because this film was made in a very authentic way with integral … "He stumbles over the word. "How do you say it?"
With integrity? "Yes, with integrity."
• Girl is released in the UK on 15 March.