There’s something to be said for revisiting a film. I always knew I had to include Belgian director Alain Berliner’s 1997 feature Ma vie en rose in this series. It’s about seven-year-old Ludovic Fabre (Georges du Fresne), who is born male but identifies as female and is met with considerable scrutiny by her upper-middle-class family and suburban community. It remains one of the few films to consider transgendered youth, a topic in need of greater exploration that was recently given poignant coverage on This American Life. It also paved the way for efforts like Argentinian writer-director Lucía Puenzo’s 2007 debut XXY, which focuses on a fifteen-year-old intersex girl. And even though it won a Golden Globe for Best Foreign Language Film, the MPAA branded it with an R rating in the states. This was an especially vexing decision from the board which seems transphobic, as the film contains little violence, no sexual content, and mild language. Seriously, if this movie wasn’t about a transgendered child and one tense family scene was removed, it could get a PG. I’ll be talking about Coraline in two weeks, and I think that movie is far more intense than this one.
While all of this is noteworthy, I appreciated Ma vie en rose more than I liked it the first time I saw it. I commended its efforts, but thought it fumbled in its integration of melodrama and fantasy. I felt like I was hit over the head with message. At the same time, I was unsure about what to do with a film that was at once a social issue picture and an observation of the gentry class, which is a cornerstone of mainstream Belgian and French cinema and informs American fare like Nancy Meyers’ It’s Complicated. All of this felt incongruous. But when I watched it again this weekend, I was surprised by how effective Ma vie en rose is at getting into Ludovic’s subjectivity and her neighborhood’s subtle class dimensions. Though by no means a perfect film, Ma vie en rose is better than I remembered it.
Credit should go foremost to du Fresne, who is great as Ludovic. It’s pretty astounding how capable he is at conveying Ludovic’s feelings, particularly when she’s swallowing others’ transphobia. Every time she encounters a wrong-headed comment by an authority figure, a classmate’s taunt, or a haircut from her mother, you feel Ludovic’s longing to be treated like a girl. She wants to marry classmate Jérôme (Julien Rivière), who himself has ambivalent feelings toward his attraction to her. Often these pressures to conform to norms of boyhood masculinity force her to retreat into a rich imaginary life where she recasts a glamorous doll named Pam (clearly modeled after Barbie) as her fairy godmother. While I think these reveries seem to spring from the mind of an adult rather than a child, I welcome their inclusion and think they enrich our understanding of Ludovic’s mindset.
I also think the film also does an admirable job considering different reactions toward Ludovic’s orientation. On one end of the spectrum is her maternal grandmother Élisabeth (Hélène Vincent), who is tremendously supportive and thinks others need to accept Ludovic as she is rather than force her to live as a boy. Ludovic’s father Pierre (Jean-Philippe Écoffey) is far less tolerant. He is ashamed that his youngest child wants to live as a girl and thus shatter people’s perception that the Fabres are a perfect nuclear family. He is also resentful about paying a child psychologist and fears that his new neighbor and boss Albert (Daniel Hanssens) will fire him at a moment’s notice, especially if Ludovic continues to play with his son Jérôme. Ludovic’s teacher attempts to correct her student’s behavior but later declares to the class that they each need to be sensitive to their differences, a statement I believe all teachers must be responsible and brave enough to make. Ludovic’s mother Hanna (Michèle Laroque) occupies a tenuous middle ground. She wants her child to be happy, but often caves to the demands of her husband and the environment’s social order. Little consideration is given for how Ludovic’s two older brothers feel about their sibling’s transition, though they initially seem more supportive than sister Zoé (Cristina Barget), who is starting to menstruate and is stymied by her biology.
Ludovic often announces her identity through cross-dressing. This may sound hackneyed, but it’s powerful within the context of the film. It is how Ludovic is introduced and she uses it to make a larger public statement. During a school play, Ludovic usurps the role of Snow White from a cisgendered female classmate to the humiliation of her parents. She is expelled from school and attempts suicide after a harrowing exchange with her livid father, who himself experiences strain from his boorish employer. The Fabres decide to move, largely out of shame.
However, the film suggests that Ludovic and the rest of the family live happily ever after. In her new neighborhood, Ludovic befriends Chris, a transgendered girl named after co-writer Chris Vander Stappen. At a party, Chris demands to trade clothes with Ludovic, who is wearing boyish attire. Afraid that her parents will be angry with her for wearing a dress, Ludovic flees. Her mother slaps her for insubordination and hallucinates that her daughter disappears into a billboard advertisement for Pam. Hannah follows Ludovic in, resulting in a transformative moment. When she wakes up back at the house, she is surrounded by a family and neighborhood who embrace Ludovic as female. Though this is perhaps too pat of an ending which turns Ma vie en rose into a fairytale, and while this is not a shared experience for all transgendered children, it hints at a future that requires communities working together with kids and trusting their abilities to forge personal identities in order to guarantee it.