Bechdel Test Canon: Ma vie en rose

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.

Ludovic in Ma vie en rose

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.

Ludovic with grandma

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.

Fabre family

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.

Comments

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Thanks for reviewing this

Thanks for reviewing this film. I saw it several years ago and, while it's definitely a fairy-tale-ized version of transgendered childhood, I enjoyed it. While the not-always-pleasant reality of the trans experience is certainly something that should be explored in film, there are many films that take a fairy-tale-like approach to the more serious things in life--though I did find the ending to be a bit too nicely wrapped up. I actually kind of liked the reactions of Ludovic's family in that they were neither unilaterally supportive nor viciously unsupportive. I thought the film did a nice job of portraying them as struggling to understand their child while still wrestling with the societal norms that they took fro granted for their entire lives. I am surprised about the R rating, though--I watched it on DVD and didn't notice the rating at all, but an R definitely doesn't seem appropriate, and I don't think younger kids would have a hard time understanding the concept of "transgender," and it seems to me like a good idea to introduce it at a younger age.

Upon review, I definitely

Upon review, I definitely agree with your points Owl. I too "actually kind of liked the reactions of Ludovic's family in that they were neither unilaterally supportive nor viciously unsupportive" because it seemed like more of a complicated reaction that loved ones would have toward having to reconfigure their understanding of a family member.

I didn't know about the rating until I put the movie in my Netflix queue, which was after I saw it the first time. I was like "did I miss some really graphic sex scene or blue language or something?" Indeed I didn't. So I completely agree about this movie being totally acceptable and palatable for kids and a good vehicle to introduce transgendered identity to them.

Alyx Vesey

welcome fantasy

I first saw this film when I was emerging from a goth identity into a more solid genderqueer identity (around 20) and I immediately loved it - I used to watch it occasionally when I needed cheering up. I could identify with Ludovic at the same time as I admired her strength of conviction (certainly well beyond anything I'd experienced as a child).

I appreciated the fantasy elements and the innocence of Ludovic, especially given that the vast majority of MTF trans/cross-dressing representations at the time were hyper-negative stereotypes (e.g., drugged-out prostitutes or psycho killers like the guy in Beyond the Valley of the Dolls). I understand the realities of the trans experience can sometimes result in prostitution (which itself often leads to drug abuse) and I appreciate that some movies deal fairly with that harsh reality, but it was nice to see a more positive representation that showed the social struggle without going to the extreme edges.

I really liked the array of reactions from the family (including the siblings), watching them struggle and eventually accept/tolerate (each at hir own rate). Some parts (especially those with the father) mirrored my own struggle. Note: the grandmother doesn't start out as "tremendously" supportive, but grows into that persuasion.

In terms of the ending, for me it signifies that it is possible to find (or create) the right environment for trans/genderqueer people to thrive and I think that's both hopeful and fair. Sure, it's "tidy", but it's really a pretty small victory (one birthday party with supportive people and a potential future with a few supportive neighbors) - please don't take that away by calling it "pat" (implying impossible/unrealistic).

One important clarification: When the author says "the Fabres decide to move", it's actually the 2nd (at least) such move. When the movie opens, it's made clear that the family has just moved to the neighborhood and it is later revealed that this (1st?) move was due to Ludovic's "issues". Given that context, the final move resulting in some level of acceptance doesn't seem so unrealistic.

As for the MPAA rating, that's no surprise - those ratings are basically arbitrary (there are no standards and the raters are not "experts"). I highly recommend "This film is not yet rated" to gain some insight into the process (and unfairness) of the ratings. http://www.imdb.com/title/tt0493459/ (* movie imagery Not Safe For Work)

I actually linked the IMDB

I actually linked the IMDB entry for This Film Is Not Yet Rated in the body of the piece, but thanks for highlighting it slithers. After seeing that documentary, it becomes really obvious that there's no method to the MPAA's madness.

Also, thanks for pointing out that the Fabre family moves twice and Ludovic's identity is much the reason why. I forgot to point out that the opening scene is their housewarming party and it's especially important because, as you point out, the neighborhood and viewer is introduced to Ludovic identity at the same time. And I completely agree with the ending being a small victory.

Interesting contrast between Ludovic's fantasies to scenes in Beyond the Valley of the Dolls, which as you point out is a much thornier MTF representation. I feel like that's its own post (I actually wrote about it on my blog, should you care to read it).

Thanks for your comments!

Alyx Vesey

oops

I guess I missed the link (I seldom click on the links in blog posts), sorry.

I find that it's not uncommon that the "bad guys" in movies are also gender transgressive (sometimes it's just a feminine build with eyeliner/mascara, but other times it's full diva regalia) and in this way a male-born person who expresses femininity is correlated with psychosis or "evil" violence (as opposed to masculine men who are commonly associated with "righteous" violence). Oh, the cinema and its stereotypes!

I agree with your other blog post that Beyond the Valley of the Dolls was basically a bummer.

Anyways, I found Ma Vie En Rose refreshing & it's one of my favorite movies. Thanks for posting about it.

~LuQ