Ma vie en rose (1997)
★★★★ / ★★★★
Plenty of movies make a whole lot of noise but ultimately end up being about nothing. Here is a picture that tries to explore a sensitive topic, in some cultures still considered to be taboo, one that will remain relevant for many decades to come.
“Ma vie en rose,” written by Alain Berliner and Chris Vander Stappen, is about a seven-year-old boy who is convinced that she is a girl. Ludovic (Georges Du Fresne) likes to dress up in women’s clothing, prefers to play with dolls rather than trucks, and at one point admits to her grandmother (Hélène Vincent) that when she is no longer a boy, she will marry Jérôme (Julien Rivière), a classmate and friend from across the street.
Transphobia is communicated in small and big ways. Some people make remarks without necessarily intending harm. For example, as children have “gender appropriate” toys on their desks during show-and-tell, Ludovic reluctantly takes out two dolls, Ben and Pam. Surprised with the kind of toys her student has just pulled out, the teacher asks, “You want to be like Ben and not Pam, right?” Then the teacher proceeds to suggest that Ludovic and a girl who sits in front of the class might make a good couple. And yet I wondered. Is the teacher’s intention to protect Ludovic from humiliation? By preventing the child from admitting that she wants to be like Pam and then disguising the situation with a joke, there is a good possibility that perhaps the teacher has Ludovic’s best interests in mind.
The escalation of the child’s lack of happiness from a social perspective is painted with truth and clarity. He loves who he is. It is those outside of himself who have a problem. Part of it is a lack of understanding. Most of the time, it is a lack of willingness to understand. The distinction between them makes up one of the most effective arcs in the story which involves Hanna (Michèle Laroque) and Pierre (Jean-Philippe Écoffey), Ludovic’s parents. At one point or another, they want Ludovic’s hair cut off so she can look more like a boy, tell her not to wear a dress because boys just do not wear dresses, and force her to see a psychologist to get her “fixed,” to set her “straight.”
There is a lot of pain and struggle in the seven-year-old’s life and I found it admirable that Alain Berliner, the director, does not flinch from it. It gets so unbearable for our protagonist that one point, she tries to commit suicide. I have no doubt that this scene will make an impression. A child attempting to end her life may appear to be some kind of an exaggeration in a movie. But if you look at the news and hear about children killing themselves because they are bullied at school for being different, you realize that this is a reality we are facing to today. And it will continue for many years until we learn to embrace—a level beyond tolerance and acceptance.
Somewhat distracting are the fantasy scenes. It is understandable that we experience Ludovic’s way of coping, but perhaps it is best to minimize them. I found that the seriousness is undercut by some humorous images at times.
“My Life in Pink” takes a subject and examines it without compromise. This way, we get a taste of the internal lives of the main characters and sympathize with them. It shows that dealing with one’s own or a loved one’s feelings of being born in the wrong body is never easy. In the end, there is no solution imposed on Ludovic. We simply look at her from above, hoping that she will be strong enough to overcome the hurdles yet to come.
★★★ / ★★★★
Lukas (Rick Okon) had been mistakenly placed to live in a residential hall full of female nurses, an error that Lukas did not appreciate because he was a pre-op transgender transitioning from female to male. Since the neighboring all-boys building next door did not have an extra room, Lukas was forced to live with the girls until a space opened up. Ine (Liv Lisa Fries), a proud lesbian and Frank’s best friend before his decision to transition, happened to live in the building. She decided that it would do Lukas some good to make new friends so they decided to go to a party. They were picked up by Fabio (Maximilian Befort), an alpha male homosexual who was out with his friends but not with his parents. Lukas wanted to pursue Fabio but he had to hold himself back because of what was underneath his multilayered clothes. “Romeos,” written and directed by Sabine Bernadi, is for people who wish to understand what being a transgender or a transsexual means. The best sections of the film featured the rituals that Lukas had to immerse himself in order to pass as a man. While we saw the shots of testosterone that Lukas had to inject into his leg, there were also implied habits like orally ingesting drugs so that his body would be prepared for the eventual operation. But it wasn’t just about the chemistry that went on inside his body. The camera was used as a magnifying glass by showing the hair on his legs and armpits, his determination to bulk up to look more like a guy, the type of clothing he wore to hide his breasts, and the way he would force his posture in such a way that his walk would reflect that of a typical male. There was emphasis on our protagonist’s hard work which, hopefully, would make us a bit more sympathetic for something a lot of us take for granted. Feelings of shame was another important component. For example, when Lukas stood by a doorway and saw girls whispering about something, he would feel insecure because perhaps they could tell that he didn’t have all the qualifications of a man. When it wasn’t other people, sometimes the enemy was himself. He would look in the mirror and, in a way, couldn’t relate to what he was seeing: in his mind he was a male but his body was that of a female’s. Okon’s performance was critical to the film’s believability and he played Lukas with grace. It’s a compliment of the highest order when I begin to wonder if the actor is essentially playing himself or herself in the role. It seemed like Okon really understood what it was like to yearn to be in the right body and having to hide for not having it. The picture wasn’t afraid to deliver the realities of heartbreak not just in terms of finding romance but the overall feeling of being accepted by people who matter. There was honesty in the revelations and I admired that the material allowed its characters to be so flawed at times that we became angry with them for not being, for instance, an ideal friend when it really mattered. However, there was hope, too. Just because a person wasn’t there or didn’t understand when he or she was needed, it didn’t mean that they wouldn’t or couldn’t be a good friend later on. The filmmakers underlined the fact that we’re all learning something. We just have to be open. However, the film could’ve done less with Lukas and Fabio’s romantic relationship. Sometimes watching them interact was like going through a bad break-up over and over again. A handful of their melodramatic scenes severely diminished the power of an otherwise excellent material. “Romeos” was also about prejudice. There’s no denial that there’s prejudice between the straight community and the LGBT community, but it’s foolish to believe that there’s no prejudice within the latter. Sometimes watching discrimination that happens in our community hurts more. Since we have similar struggles, shouldn’t we have each other’s back? Still, as long as we remain open, we’re learning.
Prodigal Sons (2008)
★★★★ / ★★★★
Kimberly Reed decided to document her return to her hometown in Montana because it was the first time her high school friends and neighbors would see her as a woman. When Paul (now Kim) was in high school, it seemed like he had it all: he was well-liked, he was quarterback of the football team, he had good grades. However, he kept secret of the fact that he felt like he was born in the wrong body. Her eventual transformation contributed to a strain in the relationship with her older adopted brother (Marc McKerrow) who got into an accident when he was in his early twenties and had a part of his brain removed. Ever since the surgery, he had problems with his mood and memory, which was problematic for Kim because she wanted to let go of her past yet her brother kept bringing up the fact that she used to be a man. This documentary moved me in ways that I did not expect. I thought it was just going to be a documentary about how people would react to Kimberly’s decision to finally be in a body where she was meant to be. I was surprised that it was actually more about family and finding closure to issues that do not have easy or comfortable answers. It was not always a good feeling to watch Kim and Marc interact because of the awkwardness of not seeing each other for many years. There was jealousy and anger from Marc’s side and Kim walked on egg shells around her brother but it was obvious that both of them were willing to put in the effort to make their relationship work. Some of the audiences’ reactions on message boards claimed that they hated Marc for being selfish, insensitive and mean-spirited. I did not hate Marc in the least. From the location of his scar, perhaps the doctors removed a part of his frontal lobe (the movie was not specific about which part of Marc’s brain was taken out). Having some basic background in Neurology, the frontal lobe controls personality, decision-making, and memory. So I did not hold him accountable for his fits of rage. Think of it as hitting your “funny bone” (the cause) and trying as hard as you can to not react (the rage). After his violent spells, when he said that his rage “wasn’t me,” I understood what he was trying to convey because he just could not help it. His fits were not dissimilar from clips I’ve seen of actual patients who had a part of their frontal lobe removed. The movie did not offer a scientific explanation (other than he was inconsistent of taking his medication–which is to imply that he was merely choosing to be irresponsible) so I feel the need to shed some light on the matter. “Prodigal Sons” is a deeply personal film and is really worth experiencing than reading about. There were some nice surprises involving bloodlines, people’s reactions to Kim being a transgender, and the history of who Paul was. If I can describe Kim in one word, it would have to be “brave.” By the end of the movie, I wanted to meet her and thank her for sharing not just her story but also the story of her imperfect family and the love they have for one another.
Ley del deseo, La (1987)
★★★ / ★★★★
Written and directed by Pedro Almodóvar, “La ley del deseo” or “Law of Desire” was about a young man in his twenties (Antonio Banderas) who became obsessively in love with an older director (Eusebio Poncela) despite the fact that the director was in a relationship with another young man (Miguel Molina) who wasn’t fully comfortable with the relationship. The picture was also about the director casting his transgendered sister (Carmen Maura) on his play, only the play was based on her struggles about coming to terms with her identity. I think this is one of Almodóvar’s most uneven work but I loved it nonetheless. Although it got distracted from time to time when it tried to introduce unnecessary characters (like the nosy mother, the two cops, and to some extent the little girl who believed in her prayers coming true), the theme of feverish passion was always at the forefront. This is probably one of my favorite performances from Banderas because even though he was essentially a stalker, he found a way to make his character sympathetic. His character’s passion toward the director was fascinating to watch because of the way the passion eventually bubbled over, caused a flood, and changed everyone’s lives. I also loved Poncela and Maura because they shared a different kind of passion: a strong bond between two dysfunctional siblings. They may collide from time to time due to their varying interests and untold family secrets but I could always feel their love for one another; it was a nice feeling and a great contrast between the kind of bond between Poncela and Banderas. Even though “Law of Desire” didn’t quite have Almodóvar’s cheeky use of bright colors and music that jumped out of the screen, the extreme melodrama involving mistaken identities was still there and it was able to keep delivering the sort of energy I love from start to finish. Like Almodóvar’s other works, “Law of Desire” was willing to go places where most directors don’t dare go; the shock value was there (especially during the movie’s opening scene) but it’s not the kind that makes us feel bad about ourselves. It’s the kind that makes fun of us for liking what we’re seeing and wishing it wouldn’t stop. The little twists that the picture had felt natural because the characters were borderline histrionic so the twists didn’t feel like a gimmick. “La ley del deseo” may not be one of Almodóvar’s most focused movies in terms of the fluidity of storytelling but it is one of his most satisfying.
Private Dicks: Men Exposed (1999)
★★★ / ★★★★
This documentary, directed by Thom Powers and Meema Spadola, managed to cover a variety of topics that ranged from sexuality, why men don’t talk about penises, puberty, circumcision, sexual performance, sexually-transmitted diseases, penis sizes, to fertility in a span of less than an hour. Although it started off as hilarious because I was so shocked with how direct the interviewees were, I was touched because the film eventually focused on sensitive issues, such as being a transgender, with such insight and sensitivity. I loved that this documentary featured people from many backgrounds: gay, straight, transgender, bisexual, Asian, black, white, hispanic, old, young, middle aged. But what I loved most was the fact that it wasn’t afraid to show people with bodies that are not so-called ideal. I thought it gave the picture a new level of realism and honesty because more than half of Americans are not as glamorous as the people we see on television and films. However, if I were to pick out a weakness, it would definitely have to be a lack of depth. Although it was very organized because it was divided into chapters, the chapters only lasted for about ten minutes. Just when I was getting the feeling that we’re really getting to the meat of the issue (pun intended), it pulled away as if it was on a rush (pun intended again? I’m on a roll). This was particularly problematic for me when the transgendered people were being interviewed. Since I don’t know much about them, I was fascinated and I wanted to know more about their experiences–how they saw sexuality and what it meant for them to live in a society were being themselves is taboo. Perhaps another thirty minutes would have taken this movie from just good to pretty great. I also enjoyed the fact that even though there were a lot of jokes and funny anecdotes thrown around, it really emphasized the importance of health. More specifically, the importance of practicing safe sex. I particularly admired the segments when a guys would admit to having some sort of STDs; even though it wasn’t obvious, we could see in their eyes that maybe they would have done things a bit differently given the chance to go back in time. This may be a small film but I think it had some sort of an importance. It gives people a chance to showcase men’s sexual perspective and that we, too, like women, are willing to talk about sex in a direct, mature and fun way.