Ludovic, the fiercely determined young hero(ine?) of writer-director Alain Berliner's half-hilarious, half-tragic feature debut Ma Vie en Rose (My Life in Pink), proves how age, culture, and time all conspire to decide the difference between being feminine and being effeminate. Sure, he likes to wear frilly dresses and wants to marry the son of his father's boss, but all that's strictly circumstantial.
For instance, at age 7, Ludovic (played with startling eloquence by 11-year-old Georges du Fresne) strikes us as no more "effeminate" than the preadolescent, falsetto-voiced male schoolmates who corner him in a locker room and threaten to "pull it off and make you a real girl." And, speaking as an American, the froo-froo French lilt that all the males in this movie employ is the great equalizer--nobody sounds butch curling his tongue. The film also works in a Gay '90s complication, as Ludovic's family, classmates, and neighbors find their own modernism in conflict with disgust while trying to deal with a boy who says he wants to be a girl.
Because, you see, Ludovic isn't effeminate, he's feminine. He identifies with all the (stereotypical) trappings of being a girl, from earrings to silk gowns to elaborate wedding ceremonies to hopeless crushes on unreachable boys. He plays with dolls. He thrills to the snaky, sensuous dance moves of a fictional French siren named Pam, who blows magical kisses on his favorite TV show La Monde du Pam. In terms of pure courageous convictions, Ludovic is miles ahead of most contemporary adult drag queens. He's not interested in playing a woman, or commenting on arbitrary gender roles by donning a dress: he expects to be changed into a female as soon as God realizes the mishap involving that Y chromosome. And so his reasoning, he tells parents and counselors alike, is "purely scientific."
You don't have to be a transsexual or a gay man to appreciate the full richness of bittersweet flavors that run through Ma Vie en Rose, but it certainly helps. With his wide-set haunted eyes, cherry lips, and stoic presence, young Georges Du Fresne transforms the more seasoned adult cast into foils, acting and reacting against his character's stalwart campaign to be recognized as a girl. His beleaguered parents (Michele Laroque and Jean-Phillipe Ecoffey) uncomfortably tolerate his cross-dressing habits, until they spill over into the public arena of the new neighborhood where his family has moved.
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His long-estranged grandmother (Helene Vincent) adopts the most permissive attitude toward pretty little Ludovic, but is herself perplexed by his gender anarchy through most of the film. The schoolmate who receives his adoring attentions (Julien Riviere) is the most enigmatic character in the movie, at once intrigued by his suitor's infatuation but willing to reject him once the clamp of peer pressure tightens.
Berliner slyly draws parallels between the Belgian suburbia where Ludovic's enemies dwell and the imaginary universe into which he longs to escape, implying that the neighbors who shun this 7-year-old "boygirl" (that's the title he eventually takes for himself) have retreated into their own comfy alternative reality. Both feature an abundance of trees, primary colors, snug domestic settings, and vigilantly observed heterosexual relationships. Unfortunately, Ludovic is an interloper in the bourgeois world of his parents, neighbors, and siblings; that he eventually suffers the betrayal of all three speaks as much about their yearning for comfort and stability as for his. Toward the movie's end, he briefly resigns himself to traditional middle-class boyhood, but the fit is so obviously constraining, he's liberated against his will by another young gender-bender named Chris(tine) (Raphaelle Santini).
Press materials and previous interviews quote Berliner explaining that his film is revolutionary in addressing the issue of sexual identity among children. His comic drama is, by almost anyone's definition, very bold in raising a topic most adults would rather ignore, but it's not unprecedented: Gay American filmmaker Todd Haynes (Poison, Safe) directed a remarkable short film four years ago called Dottie Gets Spanked that chronicled a grade-school suburbanite whose admiration for a Lucy-like TV star gets him into hot water with his peers and his parents. Haynes' hourlong drama more succinctly explored the connection between a child's fantasy world and internalized homophobia. Still, the subject of kids, gender, and sexuality remains a largely unexplored frontier in world cinema, and Ma Vie en Rose plants a vibrant, colorful flag in that terrain.
Ma Vie en Rose.
Directed by Alain Berliner. Written by Chris vander Stappen and Alain Berliner. Starring Georges du Fresne, Michele Laroque, Jean-Phillipe Ecoffey, and Helene Vincent. Opens Friday.