When we recently reviewed all of Céline Sciamma’s back catalog for the podcast, the only film in the director’s portfolio that I couldn’t fully get on board with was Tomboy. The 2011 coming-of-age drama is a quiet, bare-bones portrait of children at play that illustrates in the simplest, most direct terms possible how limiting & cruel societal enforcement of gender traits is, which is especially apparent in how young kids are taught to socialize. I enjoyed Tomboy well enough, but it was clearly the slightest effort in Sciamma’s mighty catalog – adhering to a slice-of-life docudrama style that mostly avoids the transcendent catharsis of Sciamma’s superior works (with the exception of one indulgence in care-free bedroom dancing). Weeks later, I stumbled upon a fascinating counterpoint to Tomboy in Ma vie en rose (My Life in Pink), a Belgian film that had arrived more than a decade before Sciamma’s. Narratively, Tomboy and My Life in Pink are nearly identical. Both films follow a young child’s misadventures in a new school & neighborhood when they decide to introduce themselves to their peers as a different gender than what they were assigned at birth (and what their parents enforce at home). The difference between them is that My Life in Pink is the extreme opposite of a muted docudrama; it’s prone to frequent indulgences in hyper-stylized escapist fantasy, to the point where it’s practically a fairy tale. It gave me the small taste of transcendent catharsis I was searching for in Tomboy in overwhelming heaps, to the point where I was nearly choking on it. Given that the muted docudrama style of Tomboy is likely the more Intellectual approach to their shared subject, I’m somewhat embarrassed to admit that I gobbled it up.
Ludovic is a seven-year-old child in suburban Belgium (which suspiciously looks like Tim Burton’s dreamlike vision of suburban America) who declares that she wants to live her life as a girl going forward, despite her parents’, school’s, and classmates’ insistence that she be treated and express herself as a boy. The social fallout from this self-declaration of trans identity plays out much the way you’d expect if you’ve ever seen a queer coming-of-age story before. My Life in Pink distinguishes itself less in the actions & trajectory of its characters than it does in the specificity of its style & setting. The nuclear-family suburban backdrop is perfectly illustrative of how gender is societally expressed, reinforced, and policed (even among young children, who are essentially genderless). The film opens with a rapid succession of Business Men husbands in the same suburban cul-de-sac zipping up their wives’ dresses, each in an individualistic way that perfectly illustrates their relationships with sexuality & marital tradition. Meanwhile, Ludovic is playing dress-up with his mother’s & older sister’s clothes & makeup in the family attic, a private moment of delicate self-fulfilling bliss that’s only shattered when she premieres her look-du-jour to the world and receives nastier feedback than anticipated. As an audience, we can predict everything that will happen to Ludovic & her family as her newly forming gender identity steps outside of what’s properly Allowed. Watching this particular kid navigate that painful process is still an enlightening experience, though, especially as we sink deeper into the private fantasy world she keeps hidden away from the cruel adults who’d prefer to lock her in a gender box that obviously doesn’t fit her shape.
The escapist fantasies Ludovic uses to dissociate from her cruel social conditions are the movie’s real selling point. They mostly revolve around a generic Barbie Doll-type character Ludovic is obsessed with, to the point where she frequently mentally projects herself inside the doll’s house & playset. This internal fantasyscape allows the film to indulge in bright, overly saturated colors & plastic dollhouse aesthetics as often as it pleases – blowing up a child’s inner world while playing dress-up to a worldwide playground outside their mind. It’s an aesthetic that also spills over to the stylized, ludicrously Artificial suburbia where Ludovic actually lives, given how the sunflowers are as huge as hubcaps and the neighborhood husbands all back out of their driveways perfectly in sync to start their collective morning commute. That’s not to say that My Life in Pink doesn’t take the day-to-day drama of its protagonist’s unfairly policed childhood gender identity as seriously as Tomboy does with its own. It just approaches that same subject from a more expressionistic, dreamlike lens. It very much feels like a product of its New Queer Cinema era, with a particular debt to how Todd Haynes explored real-world gay crises through a stylized fantasy lens (particularly recalling the segment of Poison about the boy who flew out the window). I don’t believe that approach is any more valuable or insightful than how Sciamma chose to frame the remarkably similar narrative of Tomboy; nor do I believe the opposite is true. Both the docudrama approach of Tomboy & the internal fantasy realm of My Life in Pink have their separate merits (and make for interesting contrast-and-compare companion viewing). I’m just such a sucker for the dollhouse fairy tale aesthetics of the earlier film that I can’t help but choose it as a personal favorite over its more stylistically muted counterpart.