Boston Review
table of contents
new democracy forum
new fiction forum
rave reviews
writers’ guidelines
bookstore locator
literary links
RSS feed

Search the Web

For more film reviews by Alan Stone, click here.

Seeing Pink

A film with no romance, no aliens, and no famous stars provides a new understanding of human sexuality.

Alan A. Stone

Ma Vie en Rose is, to my knowledge, the first cinematic exploration of gender identity in young children. It is about Ludovic, a seven year old French boy who is convinced he is meant to be a girl. The Belgian-born director, Alain Berliner, was present to introduce the film at its Boston Film Festival premiere. He modestly informed us that this was his first full-length feature, as it was for all of the other principals on the production side. And then, with a sense of moral urgency unusual in filmmakers, he said that he had concluded that a film like this needed to be made. Many in Hollywood might share his sentiments, but it is unlikely that such a film could have been made in our bottom-line America.

Producer Carole Scotta selected the story (by Chris Vander Stappens) and chose Berliner to direct it because she saw "son audace et sa poesie" as indispensable for realizing the story's fragile nature. By film industry standards, Scotta's audacity in producing the film is even more impressive. Ma Vie en Rose has no action, no violence, no romance, no aliens, no natural disasters--not even a recognizable star. It is certainly no comedy and, though it is a film about children, many conventional parents will not want their children to see it. In sum, it has no targeted audience. Yet in a world that genuinely prized and did not just tolerate difference, this film would have been made by Disney. It marks a new, truthful departure in cinematic understanding of difference in human sexuality and gender identity in children.

Gay and lesbian themes are now commonplace in films and audiences seem to take them in stride. It is difficult to know what to make of this. Are we now more tolerant, more empathic, more able to respond emotionally to the gay and lesbian erotic? Or is it, as I believe, that audiences--though more tolerant--have also become as inured to these images as they have to violence? Film has the capacity to deepen and purify the emotions or deaden the sensibilities. The outcome depends on both the filmmaker and his audience. Gay issues pose problems for both.

Edouard Molinaro's La Cage aux Folles was the first big box-office film in which an enduring homosexual relationship was presented as neither tragic nor sordid. When it was made in the 1970s, homosexuality, not homophobia, was still thought to be the sickness. Straight men, even if not homophobic, still kept their anxious distance from queer love. Through a combination of wit, humor, and French sexual sophistication, La Cage aux Folles, based on a play by Poiret, helped overcome these fixed emotional reactions. The film's homosexual couple are faced with a standard bourgeois domestic predicament--the initial visit of the prospective in-laws. One of the gay partners has a son, the result of a heterosexual fling in his youth. Now grown up, the son is about to get married and his fiance's conventional parents want to look over his family. The art of this storyline is that it allows the conventional audience to identify with the gay couple as they worry about how the conventional in-laws (the audience in fact) will react to them. And the gay couple are so stereotypical in their gender roles (one sensible, the other hysterical) that the audience can see them through the prism of the traditional middle class family. La Cage aux Folles was nominated for the Academy Award as best foreign film in 1978. It did not win, but it earned so much money that Molinaro made a sequel, La Cage aux Folles II, and of course it spun off the Broadway musical. Although it was a farcical situation comedy, La Cage aux Folles was a step forward in human tolerance and reconciliation. The film made it possible for audiences to welcome the "gay couple" into the family of humanity and to do it with pleasure. But unlike subsequent films, La Cage never threatened the audience by confronting them with the homosexual erotic.

Last year, when Robin Williams did Bird Cage, his remake of La Cage aux Folles, it fell flat. The farcical solutions seemed stale and condescending to a more tolerant public with greater sympathy for tragic gay and lesbian characters. But open-mindedness is not quite empathy--an identification that permits a vicarious and transformative experience.

Only seven years after La Cage aux Folles, Pauline Kael reviewed in the New Yorker a "startlingly fresh movie from England," My Beautiful Launderette. What was "startling" about this Stephen Frears film was its explicit depiction of a teenage homosexual romance. It was a modern-day Romeo and Juliet--West Side Story set in South London--with two male lovers: a Pakistani, Omar, and a skinhead, Johnny. Kael, ever sophisticated, described it brilliantly as a "joyride of teenage sex" and emphasized the true "tenderness of their love affair," without batting an emotional eyelash over the fact that this was a "homosexual romance." But the mule-kick emotional impact of this storyline comes precisely from its direct confrontation with the homosexual erotic. Kael's worldliness about all matters sexual may explain her seeming imperviousness. But ordinary filmgoers--especially the straight men in the audience--cannot escape so easily. My Beautiful Launderette plunged into the depths of everyman's unconscious sexual feelings and demanded a human response. Omar and Johnny (played with unrestrained passion by Daniel Day Lewis) enact the homophilic impulses which are so often suppressed under the macho of teenage gangs. Gay men could go to this film and feel aroused and straight men could, if they allowed themselves, understand how this was possible.

Ma Vie en Rose will never rival La Cage at the box office, nor is it as challenging as My Beautiful Launderette. Still, it is a major achievement. Ludovic is a girl-boy with the innocence of every other seven-year-old child. It is impossible for a straight filmgoer not to empathize with him.

Ludovic is the youngest of four children in a French family that has finally begun to solve its financial problems. They have just moved into the French equivalent of Levittown and are preparing for a house warming. As the story unfolds we learn that Ludovic's father, Pierre, has become friendly with his boss (and neighbor) who has personally assured him that even in the face of downsizing, Pierre's good job will be secure because of their friendship. After years of skimping, Ludovic's parents, Pierre and Hanna, are in a celebratory mood as they prepare to greet their new neighbors. No one in the film has a last name, but in the spirit of the story it would be appropriate to call Ludovic's family the Roses.

The camera gives us a sense of the Roses' new middle-class neighborhood and glimpses of the tension and grief that lie behind the neighbors' ranch-house doors. Pierre's boss and his wife have lost one of their two children. The mother has preserved her daughter's room as a shrine to her inconsolable loss. Her husband and son must bear the weight of this burden of grief; it is the wound at the center of their shared lives. Berliner wants us to see from the start that every family and not just the Roses has its knots and tangles.

As we meet the neighbors, we are also shown a long-haired child primping in front of a mirror. The child puts on large dangling earrings and daubs on lipstick. One thinks of a little girl playing dress-up with her mother's clothing. But this is Ludovic innocently preparing to impress his new neighbors with his girlish beauty. The neighborhood housewarming is to be Ludovic's "coming out."

Although there is nothing amateurish in Berliner's filmmaking, there is something ingenuous about it. He describes the film as "halfway between dream and reality," but there are more dimensions than that. At times his exploration of families has the sophistication of Ken Loach, a director he admires. At other moments he shows us children's programs on French television and segments that look like commercials. Then there are Ludovic's fantasies: a mix of television and fairy tale created out of computer graphics. Finally, there is a world of children, filmed at the eye-level of a child. Rather than imposing a directorial will on this material, Berliner finds his way in it.

The film's title Ma Vie en Rose suggests Edith Piaf's "La Vie en Rose"--a song about how life is rose-colored when one is in love. Sung by the wistful gamine Piaf, the song suggests that her "Vie en Rose" will be all too brief. But rose or pink is also the color for girls as blue is for boys. Ludovic lives in a fantasy world of pink. Berliner, who with writer Vander Stappen adapted the screenplay, makes full use of the title's meanings. From its first moments, the cinematography picks up various shades of pink, including the pinks of the nursery and those supposedly flesh-color plastic pinks of children's dolls. Ludovic's French television fairy godmother comes on in a haze of computerized pink, her ample pink bosom barely contained in its pink dcolletage. She moves from cartoon figure to real person before our eyes in imaginatively constructed cinematography.

But girl-boys like Ludovic are not just imaginative constructions. The "effeminate boy," as he is known in the psychiatric literature, is one of the most persuasive demonstrations that gender identity is biologically given. The girl-boy, to use Ludovic's term, has the gait, habitus, and gender-distinctive mannerisms of the girl-girl, and it all seems to be innate rather than acquired. Ludovic's own imaginative theory is that when his chromosomes came down the chimney one of his X's accidentally got knocked off. Whatever the explanation, girl-boys, like Ludovic in the film, are a source of humiliation to their parents, are tormented by their peers, and retreat into a fantasy world for consolation. As this film poignantly suggests, neither the child nor his parents can be blamed. And girl-boys like Ludovic, confounding all our stereotypes, may grow up with a preference for heterosexual intercourse. Their innate gender behavior is something like being born left-handed. Think of all the "sinister" stereotypes that have traditionally been associated with left-handedness, and the unnecessary discipline and punishments we visited on left-handed children. We may someday come to think about children like Ludovic in much the same way. Ma Vie en Rose is an enlightened beginning of that process.

Ludovic's "coming out" predictably shocks the neighbors, though Pierre adroitly covers it up by declaring after Ludovic's grand entrance that his youngest son is a great joker. But Ludovic's conviction that he is meant to be a girl is no joke. A determined transvestite, he puts his short pants on with the fly in the back. He is fearful and awkward at soccer. Worst of all, he picks the son of Pierre's boss to be his boyfriend, and, violating the shrine of the dead daughter, puts on her communion dress and stages a make-believe wedding to the boss's son. The grieving mother notices the ceremony through a door left ajar and is devastated by the sacrilege. The boss and the neighbors turn on Ludovic and his family. The bewildered child is derided as a "tapette," French slang for "faggot." One sign of Ludovic's innocence is that he understands only the word's literal meaning, and asks his parents why people are calling him a fly-swatter.

Pierre and Hanna are in turn ashamed and indignant. They try everything. They consult a child psychologist, who wonders whether they may have wanted a girl. The psychologist's question makes Ludovic's mother feel guilty enough to cut his hair, but her mothering is obviously not enough to explain his behavior. Eventually the child psychologist gives up, acknowledging that the therapy is useless particularly since her patient has no interest in being cured. By then, Ludovic has been thrown out of grade school and the seven-year-old is the moral leper of the neighborhood. He is also the cause of conflict and resentment in his family as his parents quarrel and blame each other. The bottom falls out when the boss downsizes and Pierre loses his job, their friendship having long since turned to enmity because of Ludovic's sacrilege. Even worse, the boss worries that his son is fond of Ludovic and has been corrupted by the tapette.

At the moment of total disaster, Ludovic's family rallies round him: whatever he is, he is their child. Still they want him back in the closet. Escaping suburbia, they move to the French backwaters of Clermont-Ferrand, hoping that Ludovic will be able to suppress his girl-boy nature and allow them all to make a fresh start as a "normal family." Though it makes him unhappy, Ludovic makes an effort to act like a boy. One day as the friendless child is mooning around by himself, he is set upon by a bully who wants him to play, and retreats into his fantasy world. Across the highway is a billboard bearing the likeness of his television fairy godmother; Ludovic notices that workers have left a beckoning ladder leading up to it. While Alain Berliner described Ma Vie en Rose as "midway between dream and reality," here it is all dream world, as we see Ludovic climb up the ladder and escape, in a Through The Looking Glass moment, into his happy pink fantasy world. His worried mother goes looking for him. Some insight tells her to follow up the ladder and join her son. This dream-world sequence suggests that mother and son will be united by sharing Ludovic's imaginative world. Who can doubt the wisdom of this unity? More than a few of our greatest artists are in reality like Ludovic and they share with us the gift of their imaginative world.

Berliner might have ended his story inside the billboard, but Ma Vie en Rose continues until it finds a kind of solution in the real world. The young bully who picked on Ludovic and wanted him to play turns out to be a tomgirl. And as Berliner rightly recognizes, tomboys or boy-girls are much less shocking in our patriarchal world than girl-boys like Ludovic. The bully's mother comes to invite Ludovic and his family to the tomboy's dress-up birthday party. Since the seven-year-old Ludovic is "back in the closet" he is to wear a manly costume. The tomboy, miserable in her princess costume, soon gets Ludovic into a shed, overcomes his desperate resistance, and changes costumes with him. When the bedraggled Ludovic shows up in the princess dress his outraged parents are ready to set upon him. This time, however, the tomgirl's mother intervenes and the bully confesses that it was all her fault. Ludovic and his family are saved from social exile. Clermont-Ferrand is it seems more tolerant of gender-bending than suburbia was--the boy-girl has saved the girl-boy.

This moment of symmetry is not a happy ending: we do not expect Ludovic's life to be a happy one. And yet perhaps, like Piaf, his artistic talent will permit him and us to find community in what he creates. One understands at the end why Berliner and Scotta were willing to stake their creative ambitions on this project. And one can even hope that twenty years from now a remake of Ma Vie en Rose will fall flat because audiences so much better understand this kind of difference.

Originally published in the December 1997/ January 1998 issue of Boston Review

Copyright Boston Review, 1993–2006. All rights reserved. Please do not reproduce without permission.

 | home | new democracy forum | fiction, film, poetry | archives | masthead | subscribe |