Film Appreciation: Ma Vie En Rose

Film Appreciation: Ma Vie En Rose

The 1997 Belgian film Ma Vie En Rose depicts the impact on a suburban family when its youngest son comes to the realization that he is actually a girl. Berliner uses comic and fantasy elements to illustrate the conflicts in the mind of his young protagonist. An insightful script by Berliner and Chris Vander Stappen and a knockout performance by eleven-year-old Georges du Fresne go a long way toward maintaining the dignity of the young protagonist in circumstances where his self-esteem is under direct assault.

Ma Vie En Rose opens with preparations for a house-warming party. Pierre and Hanna Fabre (Jean-Phillippe Écoffey, Michèle Laroque), who have just moved in, are throwing a party to meet their new neighbors. They got their house through the influence of Pierre’s boss, who also lives a couple of houses away. Everything looks pristine, like the developments in a 1950s sitcom or Tim Burton’s Edward Scissorhands. Clearly, the Fabres want to succeed socially in their new home.

Pierre and Hanna welcome guests and begin introducing themselves and their family. One child is missing, though. Seven-year-old Ludovic (Mr. Du Fresne) is still getting ready. Wearing a pink princess dress and a pair of his mother’s earrings, he carefully applies one of her lipsticks. Stepping into a pair of his mother’s red pumps, he calmly walks downstairs to greet the guests.

Ludovic is met by stunned silence. Pierre jumps in and tries a hasty excuse-that Ludovic is joking. The guests pretend to buy this, but it is clear many of them do not. Hanna takes Ludovic inside to wash off the makeup and put on “normal” clothes. She and Pierre tell Ludovic’s grandmother, Élisabeth (Héléne Vincent), they consider this behavior a phase. Élisabeth agrees, mentioning a friend whose son went through a time when he liked to wear skirts.

Once Ludovic starts school, though, it becomes clear the people in his housing development will not be so broadminded. Kids at school jeer at him because he plays with dolls-his favorites, Pam and Ben, are a variation on Barbie and Ken. He does poorly at sports, and his attempt to kiss a girl is foiled when she tells him she does not kiss girls.

Even so, Ludovic finds ways to cope. He finds an unexpected ally in Jerome, the son of his father’s boss. The two become friends, and Ludovic confides to Élisabeth that he plans to marry Jerome “when I’m not a boy any more”. He is convinced he will become a girl when he grows up.

His sister Zoé (Cristina Barget) inadvertently reinforces this by telling him about the XX and XY chromosome combinations determining physical gender. Ludovic concludes his second X chromosome got misplaced, forcing God to substitute a Y chromosome. In other words, his gender issues are the result of a heavenly clerical error.

As the friendship between Ludovic and Jerome deepens, so does the opposition from their community. People signal their disapproval of Ludovic in subtle and not-so-subtle ways. Pierre’s job situation grows more and more perilous. He and Hanna scramble to find ways to cope, including taking Ludovic to a therapist. It boils down to a stark choice-either they conform to the narrow-minded views of their community, or they embrace Ludovic’s right to be himself.

Ma Vie En Rose does not end with all its issues neatly resolved, but with a hopeful new beginning for the Fabre family. A lovely touch here relates to Ludovic’s favorite TV show, Le Monde De Pam (Pam’s World), an animated series starring his doll Pam. There are several fantasy scenes in which Ludovic asks advice from Pam. Near the end there is a scene where Hanna fantasizes about Ludovic and Pam. The experience gives Hanna new empathy for Ludovic and helps them reconnect.

So many things are done well in this film from the technical side. The art design and cinematography, especially for the fantasy sequences, helps to set the mood beautifully. I was interested in cinematographer Yves Cape’s use of long shot, which showed alienation in some instances and community in others. I’ve already mentioned the winning performance by Du Fresne; Laroque, Écoffey, and Vincent are also quite good in their roles.

Ma Vie En Rose works on so many levels that it is hard to believe it is Alain Berliner’s feature debut. He first worked in film as a “reparateur de scenario”, also known as a script doctor. He directed a short called Rose in 1993, which brought him to the attention of a French executive who wanted to make Ma Vie En Rose.

At the time, screenwriter Chris Vander Stappen was still writing the first draft. Vander Stappen, a woman who lived as a man, had person gender-confusion experience to draw upon. They created Ludovic’s character as a boy, Berliner said, because “it’s easier to be a tomboy than to be a boy who wants to be a girl”.

Berliner and Vander Stappen created thirteen more drafts before they started filming. Berliner said of the result, “I wanted the child’s innocence and his amazing certainty make his questions touch our hearts and allow us the understand them.” He has done that, and more.

Theme: Gender Identification

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