Though the sociopolitical connotations are more nuanced in French, the word "bourgeois" has, in English, come to refer to the middle class, with definitions like "a person whose political, economic, and social opinions are believed to be determined mainly by concern for property values and conventional respectability" or even "a mediocre, unimaginative, or materialistic person." Ma vie en rose ("My Life in Pink"), from Belgian filmmaker Alain Berliner, is all about the unimaginative struggle to maintain conventional respectability, and the transgender child who is having none of it.
Seven-year-old Ludovic Fabre (Georges Du Fresne) is the youngest child in a bourgeois family happily humming along in comfortable gender roles. Having just moved into their suburban dream house, the Fabres look forward to hosting their neighbors. Pierre (Jean-Philippe Écoffey) asks, "How is your new life?" and his wife Hanna (Michèle Laroque) responds, "It goes, 'Heat up the pizzas, put the aperitifs outside, and make the canapés.' It also makes me feel very proud of my husband." Ludo's sister Zoé is a princess-loving girly girl, and their too-neatly labeled brothers—"brainy" Thom and "naughty" Jean—are "boys will be" boys, who favor play-acting as cowboys with guns. At the garden party, their parents cheerily, blithely reinforces traditional gender norms, Pierre introducing Hanna as "the prettiest" member of their "tribe" and Hanna chirping, "Takes after her mother!" But when their boy Ludo descends wearing a pink dress, all bets are off.
Ludo tells his mother, "I wanted to be pretty" and "I'll be a girl." Ludo believes she is a result of a hitch in God's plan, "a scientific error" meant by God to be a girl. Naturally, no one in her well-manicured, picture-perfect suburbia will listen; busy "playing house" themselves, all of the adults are certain it's a phase "he"'ll grow out of. But by bringing a Pam doll (a clear Barbie pastiche) to school, Ludo sets off more alarm bells. Even in 1997, most of Ludo's boy peers are lost in devices (in this case, GameBoys), and it is the girls who play with dolls. One boy clutching a security "rag" gets some ribbing, but Ludo gets worse for his dolls. Hasn't he ever heard of an "action figure"? Meanwhile, Ludo's new friend Jérôme (Julien Rivière)—ominously the son of Pierre's boss—has brought a toy truck to "show and tell." Jérôme shows the truck but doesn't tell what he has hidden inside: the earring Ludo dropped at the garden party (and a tidy metaphor for an external image of normality hiding a more complicated gender identity).
A curious Jérôme and Ludo play-act a wedding (a traditionally more feminine form of play), setting off a wave of what looks like homophobia but might be more accurately called transphobia. Though there's is an preadolescent crush, even its innocent nature is complicated by transgender. From Ludo's point of view, the relationship would be heterosexual (girl loves boy and vice versa), but is Jérôme drawn to the boy he sees, the girl Ludo could be, or Ludo's self-description to Jérôme of a "girlboy"? At any rate, hysteria ensues: like the "ugly American" "villagers" in Tim Burton's suburban horror stories Edward Scissorhands and Frankenweenie, the Fabres' neighbors are ready to ostracize and penalize, if not pick up pitchforks and torches. In his 1914 poem "Mending Wall," Robert Frost makes ironic use of the old adage "Good fences make good neighbors." It's probably no accident that screenwriters Berliner and Chris Vander Stappen make the Fabres' neighbor Thierry (Jean-François Gallotte) a man who sells alarm systems, a.k.a. home protection: a metaphor for the defensiveness of the community.
Berliner, himself a father of two, had this to say: "For the parents, it takes real courage to accept their child's difference because what terrifies them most—and terrifies just about everyone—is the prospect of being different themselves, of being seen as different by other people. Neighbors are like so many mirrors: when one of them reflects a distorting picture, you do your utmost to throw it out." Do we need good fences to be "good neighbors" to transgender individuals, whose very nature compels them to be transgressive and "break down walls"? Within the walls of the Fabre house (where Hanna asks an angry Pierre, "You want the neighbors to hear?"), other questions arise. Isn't love of family meant to be "unconditional love"? Is "tough love" the best medicine for a potentially confused child? What's best for Ludo?
Berliner and Vander Stappen do a good job of itemizing the kinds of gentle and not-so-gentle negative reinforcements a transgender child can expect to contend with and struggle with. Mom asks, "Don't you want to be like your brothers and father?" Dad yells at Ludo not to wear girls' clothes, his brother adding it's worse than "putting a cat in the dishwasher." Jérôme asks to no longer sit next to Ludo—"otherwise I'll go to hell." For homophobia, we get Jérôme's dad Albert (Daniel Hanssens) implying that his son being gay would be the same as being dead (to Albert), and for transphobia, the school headmaster hedging that Ludo's "tastes are too eccentric."
Ma vie en rose explores a series of potential "cures," including the "talking cure" of psychoanalysis, while leaving open the possibility that Ludo is the last character in need of a cure. Thierry says psychology is a waste of time: "Stick to sports, I say!" Ludo's dad soon tries soccer as another attempted "cure," but physician, heal thyself: Pierre's trouble expressing his emotions, which tend to bottle up then explode, finds him either threatening physical abuse to his wife and kids or, in a benign alternative, working out his aggression doing pull-ups in the yard. When change comes, it is first a false positive (Ludo longingly eyes a Pam doll in the psychologist's office, but picks up a truck to please his parents), later distressingly imposed, and finally ironically surprising, the student becoming the teacher.
Perhaps that shouldn't be so surprising, as the parents' hypocrisy also reflects the seeds of a more enlightened viewpoint. Hanna tells Ludo, "You're too old to dress up as a girl, even if you think it's funny," seconds later telling grandma Élisabeth (Hélène Vincent), "It's natural. Until the age of seven, we search for our identity." Hannah tells the psychologist, "We love our little boy. We want him to be happy." At the suggestion that Ludo has been nurtured into femininity by too much maternal influence, Pierre responds, "We raised all our kids the same way, but they're not like peas. Each one is different." And then there's Hanna's defense of Ludo when a neighbor's comments, "You're a real little housewife." Hanna responds, "Having a pecker is no excuse for not setting the table."
The film's most immediately memorable element—reminiscent of Peter Jackson's 1994 Heavenly Creatures—are the flights-of-fancy sequences, in which Ludo retreats from harsh reality to his own version of an ideal world: the "dream house" of Pam and her boyfriend Ben, as seen on the fictional TV show "Le Monde de Pam" ("The World of Pam"). This way of thinking, not unlike the suburban fantasy the adults cling to, underlines how we learn our formative lessons, social expectations, and notions of "norms" in childhood. Élisabeth explicitly teaches Ludo the lesson: "We all have to face reality. When I want to do things that would make me look ridiculous, I have a trick." The trick is to close her eyes and fantasize what she wants but is convinced (or socially programmed to believe?) she can't have. For Ludo, his escape is an out-of-body experience: boy Ludo, in boy clothes, looking up to an image of a girl Ludo in a dress, liberated from the restrictive suburban society below.