Although we tend to mythologize childhood as a carefree kingdom, a playland of imagination and innocence, the real nature of our formative years will occasionally come into focus as a hairy old memory or as the content of a troubling work of art, in this case the brilliant first feature of Belgian director Alain Berliner, Ma Vie en Rose (My Life in Pink).
Berliner sees the supposedly benign aspects of childhood as two-sided coins: Games of competition become excuses for domination; toys are training gear for the future. And the indoctrination of children into allotted gender roles is serious business &emdash; as Ma Vie 's main character, Ludovic, learns all too painfully.
Ludovic is a sweet, graceful boy with an angelic face, whose family and neighbors are horrified at his most heartfelt wish: to correct the "mistake" of his biology and recover his real identity as a girl. At first the film, its characters and audience all laugh patronizingly at this discomforting little "joke." After all, Ludovic is cute, tender and innocent. But things soon turn ugly, and as the boy persists in his feminine identification, even his closest family, mom and dad in particular, are venting their frustrations upon this little É (you know the routine).
The story, set in a creepily familiar French version of an American suburb, goes from bright and bubbly to grim and intolerant before you can say "pretty in pink." Berliner makes it obvious that folks desperately need to fit into their surroundings, so most will walk the right walk and talk the proper talk. How many of us, like Ludovic, have the courage (or obsession) to follow our real desires? And how many of us will stand up for a child's right to be himself?
An uncanny performance by the young Georges Du Fresne as Ludovic and the distressed excellence of Michele Larouque as his mother anchor an ensemble that grabs you by the preconceptions and won't let go.
Ma Vie en Rose joins that unsettling tradition of films which mix childhood fantasy and adult violence &emdash;The Boy With the Green Hair, Edward Scissorhands &emdash; to let us know that the world has some pretty hard times in store for the overly imaginative kids among us.
George Tysh is Metro Times arts editor. E-mail him at email@example.com.