Note: This film should not be confused with film La Vie en rose starring Marion Cotillard as Edith Piaf.
I don’t expect that she will be voted this years “Person of the Year” by Time magazine, but I do think that Caitlyn Jenner will be featured in a number of profiles about the most intriguing people of the year. Whether you believe that Jenner is a hero for speaking frankly and publicly about her gender transition or that it’s just the latest coup of his media hungry dynasty to stay visible in an ever crowded zeitgeist (I for one think it’s a little of both) she certainly has helped bring to light that, yes, some people are transgender and yes, they should be accepted for who they are.
Jenner, of course, is an adult and long before becoming part of a dumb reality show she already had, as Bruce Jenner, achieved fame for actually accomplishing something remarkable by winning six gold medals. He was old enough to come to terms with his gender identity and has the wherewithal to undergo gender reassignment.
But what about a child who is transgender? How does he or she deal with the fact that they identify as a she or he? How do the parents deal with a child going through gender issues? And lastly, how does one deal with a community that is not willing to accept a transgender child?
Ma vie en rose (translation: My life in pink) is a 1997 Belgian/French/British co-production about a young boy named Ludovic Fabre (Georges Du Fresne). His family has just moved into a brand new upscale suburban community that, not coincidently, is also where his father’s employer lives. When the family throws a picnic in order to introduce themselves to their new neighbors Ludovic’s Dad (Jean-Philippe Ecoffe) presents Albert (Daniel Hanssens) with the real estate sign from their house. After all, Dad says, Albert made their dreams come true.
Later Dad introduces his family to his guests. There’s his beautiful wife Hannah (Michele Laroque, well-known for such films as The Hairdressers Husband) and his four children. When seven-year old Ludovic shows up, he’s dressed in his sisters old princess costume, complete with clip-on earrings and lipstick. Dad thinks fast and introduces Ludovic as the joker in the family. Mom then grabs him, leads him into the bathroom and makes him wash off his makeup. “Why did you do this?” she demands. “I wanted to look pretty.” Ludo responds. In his seven-year old mind there’s nothing wrong with that.
We learn that Ludovic has pretty much gravitated towards his feminine side for a while now. He has two older brothers but he doesn’t play with them much. At one point he looks out his bedroom window and sees them playing cowboy, pretending to shoot each other. Ludo just doesn’t get it. He’s much closer to his older sister (Cristine Barget). She’s now entering womanhood and is happy to let Ludo play with all of her old toys. His favorite are Pam and Ben, a pair of plastic dress-up dolls that stand-in for Barbie and Ken.
Ludovic has another advocate in his grandmother (Helene Vincent). She’s apparently been out of the picture for a while but is now getting back in with the family. She watches Ludovic watching the Pam and Ben TV show and sees nothing but a happy child. She also tells Ludo that whenever she feels upset she just imagines the world the way she wishes it to be. Ludo tries that. He fantasies that he is in the world of Pam and Ben and enters the high-chroma world of Pam’s doll house and many accessories.
Ludo’s parents aren’t too worried about him at first. Mom thinks it’s just a phase and Dad is pretty overworked to really notice. Things grow complicated when Ludovic befriends Jerome (Julien Riviere), Albert’s son. While playing at Jerome’s house Ludo enters a room that’s “off-limits”. It’s a girls room, filled with dolls and costumes. Ludo convinces Jerome to play dress-up. Ludo dresses as a bride, Jerome as a groom and they play wedding. When Jerome’s Mom comes home, she faints. What Ludo could not possibly have known is that the room belonged to Jerome’s dead sister. Later, Ludo tells his Mom that he’s gonna marry Jerome when he grows up and is “not a boy”. That’s when Mom and Dad decide to take Ludo to a psychiatrist.
Dad can now tell his boss that he’s doing something about Ludovic’s behavior. Things seem to be getting under control. But then Ludo pulls a prank that causes an uproar. At his school production of Snow White, Ludo locks the lead actress in the bathroom and takes over the role of the catatonic heroine at the shows climax. Jerome is playing Prince Charming. When they leave the school the Fabre’s are now social pariah’s. Director Alain Berliner and his cinematographer Yves Cape emphasize the point with a subtle change in color temperature. Up until now the film has been shot in bright, vibrant color in order to emphasize Ludovic’s point-of-view. Now the colors become cooler, bluer, and far less inviting.
Things slowly get worse. The parents of the other students take up a petition to have Ludovic expelled from the school. After playing soccer (a game Ludo does seem to like) the other boys gang up on him and his brothers fail to intervene. Dad gets fired despite assurances from Albert that his job is secure. When he arrives home drunk, his Mom loses it. She blames Ludo for what happened and cuts his long hair. Seeing the young child with little follicles of hair on his face as he weeps is just plain heartbreaking.
Maurice Sendak, the author of such children’s books as Where the Wild Things Are and In the Night Kitchen was criticized throughout his career for painting an often dark view of childhood. He would often respond by arguing that while yes, childhood is a time of great joy, it can also be a time of great torment. We go from being indulged and protected to suddenly being told what we can and cannot do and are expected to conform in one way or another to cultural amore. In more recent years children have been encouraged to be themselves. Shows like Sesame Street embrace diversity and Mister Rogers always told children that “people can like you just the way you are.” It’s true, they can, but that doesn’t necessarily mean they will.
Quite simply, Ludovic is just being himself, and there are few things in the world that are more enjoyable. How can a child possibly understand why he’s being condemned for dong what comes naturally? He’s not hurting anybody, right (the people in the community would disagree)?
We in the U.S. like to believe that our European counterparts would be more liberal and understanding towards such a child. This movie isn’t set in the Bible Belt of the United States and the community looks like it’s perfectly secular. Still, many people in the town frighten Ludovic by telling him that he’s going to go to Hell for being “bent”. People have a tendency to suddenly become pious when confronted with something that they perceive as being sinister.
Children often go through a period of gender exploration when they are little. The first time a boy notices that a girl has different gentiles then he does, or vice-versa, is a major, at times even traumatic revelation for all of us. At one point in the film Ludovics sister opens up her science textbook and shows him that our gender is determined by whether or not we are fertilized with an XX or an XY chromosome. Ludovic then imagines the hand of God tossing down two X’s and a Y, then the X accidentally bumping off of the house’s chimney and landing in the garbage. That, Ludo reasons, is why he’s now a boy and not a girl.
Of course we do live in a world of double standards. What if Ludovic was a “tomboy” who dressed in boys clothes and liked to play sports and war games. Odds are nobody would bat an eye. Later in the film Ludo meets a child named Chris (Raphaelle Santini) whom he assumes is a boy but turns out to be a girl. Nobody seems to care very much about Chris’ lack of femininity, at least not at this stage in the game. If she continues to develop as she does she might be considered “butch” or a “dyke”.
While I don’t wish to see a sequel to Ma vie en rose (I think most sequels are unnecessary), I sort of would like to know what happened to Ludovic. He would be twenty-five now, old enough to decide how he wants to live his life. He could just be going through a phase and might grow up to be a heterosexual man. And of course being transgender doesn’t necessarily mean one is attracted to the sex they were born with. There’s a 1998 documentary called Prodigal Sons which I do plan to eventually profile on this blog. It was made by Kimberly Reed, a woman who was born a boy in Montana, was a star football player and despite her gender reassignment is married to a woman. Human sexuality has a spectrum as wide as a rainbow, which no doubt is a reason why it was adapted as the symbol of gay liberation, though has evolved to represent overall LGBT equality.
I do wonder how this film would differ if it took place today? Society as a whole has become far more tolerant of gay and lesbian people but we’ve also become even more protective of children. There are pockets of New York City and San Francisco where parents are urged to accept, embrace and even encourage their child if they seem to display homosexual tendencies. But that happens to be the exception, not the rule. By and large we still live with a pack mentality that kids are expected to conform to.
I think it goes without saying that little Ludovic captured my heart in a way that very few children in the movies ever have. Much of this has to do with the incredible performance by Georges du Fresne. He was a beautiful child and gave one of the most natural, moving performances I’ve ever seen from a little kid in the movies. Most child actors don’t grow up to be successful adult actors, as we all know. Du Fresne made a few movies in the ensuing years, including playing a young Marcel Proust in the 1998 film Time Regained. As an adult he’s only acted occasionally. Doing a Google search I was able to find little out about him except that he went on to study architecture and that in 2007 he received a European Tolerance Award in Cologne, Germany for Ma vie en rose on the occasion of the films tenth anniversary.
I certainly think that the United States has grown more tolerant in recent years towards gay and lesbian people though they’re just now starting to understand people who are transgender. Here’s a question that I think is worth pondering. When Ma vie en rose was released in this country it was given an R rating despite the fact that there was no violence, fowl language, nudity or any sex beyond gender issues. This obviously caused a minor uproar from people who felt that the rating was ruled by intolerance towards the LGBT community and that it wasn’t appropriate for children even though it dealt with a child who badly needs to be understood. Would the film receive an R rating when Catilyn Jenner is a constant media presence and has become a figure of admiration to many (and criticism by some)? I’m not sure what the answer would be but I do know that if I had a child I would want them to watch this movie, R rating or not.