Saturday, October 16, 2021

My Life in Pink (Ma Vie en Rose)


Director Alain Berliner

Actress Michèle Laroque

Berliner with child actor Georges du Fresne






















MY LIFE IN PINK (Ma Vie en Rose)        A                                                                       Belgium  France  (89 mi)  1997  d: Alain Berliner

A Director’s Fortnight film at Cannes that concentrates on the dread striking parents and communities when faced with transsexual children, becoming the darling of the festival circuit, winning a slew of awards, including the Golden Globes award for Best Foreign Language Picture, but failed to make the final cut in the Academy Awards, which awarded Roberto Benigni’s LIFE IS BEAUTIFUL (1997).  Like Rolf de Heer’s THE QUIET ROOM (1996), this film reveals an empty void in the world of adults, seen almost exclusively through the eyes of a child, first time Belgian filmmaker, Berliner, who was a scriptwriter for French TV, collaborates with Chris Vander Stappen (who Berliner describes as a lesbian living as a man) in making a French film where a boy thinks he’s a girl, a male-to-female transsexual, bringing a great deal of personal insight into this complex story about gender confusion.  Is he a boy or is she a girl?  At such a young age, he’s viewed as a boy even as he prefers identifying as a girl, describing himself as a girlboy, yet he’s too young to be making definitive statements about his gender identification, still at an exploratory age wondering how he fits into the surrounding world.  Uniquely introducing a character that may have had no precedent at this point in cinema, with zero written scholarship as well, 11-year old Georges du Fresne brilliantly plays 7-year old Ludovic (aka Ludo), who lives with his family in the all-too-perfect Parisian suburbs, and when his family is invited to a welcoming neighborhood backyard barbeque, Ludovic decides to make his grand entrance dressed in a pink dress, his mothers earrings, and elaborately applied make-up, shocking the adults, then visits the boy next door, but is more interested in his friend’s sister’s room, trying on one of her pink dresses, playing that the two are getting married, a theme that dominates his imagination.  A microcosm of an early life experience of a transsexual, where a child’s perspective tends to be undervalued by adults, the film deals with typical stages of disbelief, the retreat of the transsexual into a fantasy life to escape from the harsh reality of real life, the attempt to hide their condition for fear of punishment, and the reaction of parents, family, and society.  The film reveals how children construct elaborate play worlds out of dreams and fantasies, and then plug their real worlds right into them, fueled here by Ludo’s favorite TV show, Pam’s World, essentially a film within a film, which features his Barbie-doll heroine, Pam (Delphine Cadet), dressed like a princess with her boyfriend, Ken, in a neon pink, candy-colored fantasy world of flying dolls waving magic wands of fairy dust, and Ludovic wants to be just like Pam, My Life in Pink Clip 2 - YouTube (53 seconds).  This behavior, however, infuriates the neighbors, who are not afraid to display their open prejudices and gay phobias, growing hysterical, all signing petitions demanding Ludovic’s removal from their school as a bad influence.  What starts out colorfully comedic turns unpleasantly vicious as his classmates, neighbors, and eventually his own family gradually turn on him, offering a series of corrections for what they feel is socially deviant behavior.  His parents try therapy, with intentions of curing him, but it goes nowhere, as Ludovic refuses to be cured, convinced he is a girl, and that eventually he will grow up to be a girl, knowing some sort of mistake was made, that instead of the female XX chromosomes, one of the X chromosomes fell down the chimney into the garbage, causing him to end up with the male XY.  Using a bold color design, the film balances a hostile and extremely oppressive conventionality with a deep-seeded desire to be different, going against the flow, which feels perfectly natural to Ludo, causing no harm to anyone, yet offense is taken, driven by archaically outdated constructions of homophobic morality, where gay expression is viewed as harmful, and a threat to society’s norms. 

The film is about differences, emphasizing how a child distinguishes appropriate behavior for himself against the standards of what others consider normal.  In a child’s world, there are no boundaries or prejudices, as literally anything is possible, beautifully realized by Véronique Melery’s wondrous production design, with vibrant colors jumping off the screen captured by cinematographer Yves Cape, yet the color noticeably fades towards the end, as Ludo’s world grows significantly darker.  His mother Hanna (Michèle Laroque) is initially protective and affectionate, along with the fun-loving, very youngish acting grandmother Elisabeth (Hélène Vincent) who drives a banana-yellow convertible, both very loving and supportive, My Life in Pink Clip 1 (58 seconds), but the father Pierre (Jean-Philippe Écoffey) is infuriated by what he thinks is abhorrent behavior, yet he’s less concerned with understanding his son’s feelings than what others may think about him, in particular his boss Albert (Daniel Hanssens) who lives next door, tossing off Ludo’s crossdressing as a playful joke, just another one of his pranks, but what threatens him the most is viewing Ludo’s exhibition of femininity as a threat to his own masculinity, worried about how it may affect him, humiliated and embarrassed that others will think less of him.  The depiction of conformity in the neighborhood is stunning, something along the lines of Tim Burton’s EDWARD SCISSORSHANDS (1990), every house looking the same with concrete driveways and neatly manicured lawns, every family undergoing the exact same routine each morning, getting the children ready for school, stuffing them into family-sized cars, car-pooling them to school on their way to work, with backyard parties scheduled for the weekends.  The director describes the film as “halfway between dream and reality,” where the rich extravagance of Ludo’s imaginary world is nothing less than impressive, creating a doll’s house existence where wonders never cease, remaining playfully innocent.  The conventionality of the neighborhood has a sugar-coated veneer of pleasantries, welcoming the new family, embraced by one and all, but underneath is a savage rejection of anything viewed as abnormal, with the collective developing a lynch mob mentality, condemning those that dare to be different, even in the classroom, where Ludo’s identification with dolls make him the target of peer hostility, learning quickly that he needs to keep his personal preferences to himself, routinely ridiculed, taunted, and beaten, facing group condemnation on a daily basis.  The parents waver between wanting to punish a boy for dressing in girl’s clothing and protecting him from the neighbor’s hateful taunts, nerves constantly on edge as they come to realize this is more than a passing phase.  While there are complex undertones to the entire film, it plays out as a fantasy comedy, with brilliant dreamlike color sequences, presented with pulsating mainstream music in an overly conventional neighborhood, which is viewed as the promised land, the perfect place to raise children, capturing the beautiful innocence and naiveté of this very moving child who doesn’t understand why the kids at school or his teachers or his parent’s suburban neighbors and coworkers can’t accept him for the cheerful crossdresser that he is, turning on him with a wrath of moral indignation, basically banishing him from the neighborhood.  The boss fires his father as well, a strict Catholic equating sexual deviation with Divine disfavor, suggesting Ludo will go to hell, delivering the family a double whammy, leaving them ostracized, discarded outcasts no longer welcome, forcing them to move to a new neighborhood in a more working-class part of town far away.      

The parent’s roles reverse, as the mother blames Ludovic for this terrible new life while the father becomes more understanding, no longer under the microscope from his boss’s scrutinizing presence, allowing his son greater leeway, but Hanna is at her wit’s end, growing angry and overly judgmental, consumed by the idea that they have to change and fix Ludo’s detestable behavior, which she finds offensive, insisting that he be a boy, offering little wiggle room, placing him in a straightjacket, thinking it’s for his own good, culminating in what turns out to be the saddest scene in the film, forcing him to get a standard boy’s haircut.  It’s all a bit heartbreaking, where no one seems to care about who Ludovic really is or what he feels, leaving him more confused than ever, regularly tormented by others, subjected to bullying, abuse, and name calling, while witnessing the dissolution of his family, as his parents angrily feud with one another, where there seems to be no place to hide and no end to this exasperation.  More importantly, is this child really a threat to the stability of the neighborhood or the school?  Céline Sciamma’s Tomboy (2011) raises similar issues, using more of a documentary style, where what really separates this film from others is the extraordinary centerpiece, an unfiltered representation of Ludo’s interior fantasies, viewed as a happy place, an indescribably rich, near psychedelic, brightly colored pink and purple fantasy world that allows for an imaginary flight of fancy, a place where Ludo retreats for safety and consolation, free to wear whatever he wants, while confirming happiness still exists.  Ludo makes an extensive effort to be a boy, like sending him back into the closet, but he’s miserably unhappy, feeling isolated and alone, spending his time on a bench alongside the highway staring at a billboard depicting his favorite TV show.  It’s there that he meets Chris (Raphaelle Santini), a lonely butch girl who presents as masculine, trying to bully Ludo into playing with her, who hesitatingly agrees, eventually switching costumes with one another at Chris’s party, which sends Hanna through the roof, outraged that Ludo was putting them through yet another human catastrophe, only to be told by Chris that it was all his idea.  This touch feels overly contrived, ending abruptly, with no happy ending, as viewers can only imagine what’s in store for Ludo in the coming years ahead, left to face an all but uncertain transsexual future, with his pubescent sister Zoé offering her somber appraisal, “It only gets more difficult as you get older.”  Ludo’s sympathetic therapist offered her own commentary, suggesting “there may be things your parents will never understand,” while also informing him that he may have to wait until he’s older to say to them what he really wants to say.  Particularly when the movie was made, trans issues were not part of the public consciousness, as there was confusion over homosexuality and transsexualism, utter denial of its existence, an overriding attempt to cure it, and aggressive societal discrimination and hostility against the transsexual and their family, where the magic cure that never comes in this movie is simply a realization that transsexuals do exist, suggesting they may know themselves best, while offering love, support, and understanding for how they see themselves.  Never outwardly changing, the family has gained some insight through the division and social exclusion they have undergone, yet the film never really addresses any of the issues it raises, leaving viewers in limbo, though Ludo does achieve some degree of subjective independence, fading out into the haunting theme music, “Rose” by Zazie (Dominique Dalcan), roze-Zazie - YouTube (3:44).  In some ways Ludo is Bresson’s Balthazar in Au Hasard Balthazar (1966), a silent reflection of the cruel realities surrounding him, as Berliner has indicated others see in Ludo what they want to see, transsexuals see Ludo as a transsexual, gays see him as gay, while heterosexual viewers think he’s just going through a phase.  The film has no action to speak of, little violence, no romance, no recognizable stars, and no targeted audience, as many families will not want their children to see this film.  Yet for all practical purposes it may as well have been made by Disney, largely seen through the prism of a child’s world — is it for adults or is it for children?  Staking out new territory, balancing the real and the imaginary, the film feels ahead of its time, offering unique insight in understanding human sexuality and gender identity in children. 

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