Speaking Fluently

Social-problem films can be such a pain. They flourish manila folders filled with social-work data and expect them to substitute for creative dramatics. They're like an uninvited preacher at the door with bad breath, when you're stuck in a hospital bed.

Short of not watching them at all, it is possible to escape the mixed whammy of social-problem films--if the director has more than just good intentions in mind. Maybe there's something beyond the manila folder; maybe a compelling reason can be given for getting us to watch the story because it's a story as well as a "good thing." The tale can be fine in its own right, but it's the teller who makes it memorable.

Two new French-language movies--Ma vie en rose (My Life in Pink) and La Promesse--are blessed with gifted tale-tellers. Drawn from notions about childhood and emerging morality and selfhood, they're about kids of different ages, rendered in dynamically different styles. But they both realize that audiences can be hooked as much by shots, dialogue, or production design as by a story they're "supposed to" watch. Calling all social workers and cineastes: It's time for some continuing-education credits.

Already celebrated because of its charming look and its elfin hero, Ma vie en rose dares to question the issue of "gender identity" without giving an easy answer. It's actually a pretty subversive little movie, dressed up with a blend of comedy and latent cruelty: Is 7-year-old Ludovic (Georges Du Fresne) really a budding transsexual, or is he just a confused kid from a loving family that's trapped in a worsening social climate? This isn't the time to belabor how awful American movies are compared to French ones, but Ma vie does have the élan to simply present the situation without getting pathological about it.

Ludo is the youngest of four kids; his two brothers and a sister were "supposed" to be
followed by a second sister, but that mild confession is brushed off by his parents as just bygone fancy in a short, nearly dismissible session with a psychologist. That's about the closest we get to an explanation. What's more significant with Ludo is his will to live on his own terms while also pleasing others. Fond of feminine trappings, uninterested in sports, and especially drawn into a kitschy TV show about "Pam" (a kind of flying Barbie in a color-saturated fantasy world), he can't see why others shouldn't be thrilled when he steps out in a dress, or kidnaps Snow White in a school play so he can take her place. He's presexual enough to think and behave primarily in terms of appearance or manner. Even when joined with a classmate who just might be gay, Ludo thinks of the boy as a future husband. Whatever he is or will become, Ludo is primarily a sensitive and interesting kid.

The film is fascinating for two nearly contradictory reasons: It neatly dramatizes the climate of blame and ostracism that can surround such a kid, and it follows a clear strategy of visual design to support its emotional developments. At first, as Ludo's family moves into a nice new neighborhood where his dad's new boss lives across the street, everything is giddy and colorful--a conspiracy of mango oranges, deep turquoises, and the like. It's practically a toothpaste commercial. Needless to say, as Ludo's inner fantasies take public form, the neighbors--and even his parents--shrink away or pounce on him in various ways, and so the color tone shifts. By film's end, with a change in circumstance, the movie's down to a stark blue and white in keeping with the sense of reduced expectations. It's within this two-tone world that Ludo finally makes a friend worth having.

Ma vie en rose isn't a sad movie. In fact, because Ludo's parents (Michele Laroque, Jean-Philippe Ecoffey) are both written and acted so credibly, the range of love, shame, and hope they express makes it more of a story about them than this innocent boy. If you're looking for a parenthood manual then this is your ticket, but in the bargain there's also a mise-en-scène lesson or two. Following a sincere and stylish path, director Alain Berliner has the grace to respect both his topic and his audience's sensibilities.

As a vehicle for issues, the Belgian La Promesse is a different model entirely, but just as well-built and ready to race. Directed by two brothers (Luc and Jean-Pierre Dardenne) who are otherwise known as documentarists, the movie is a handheld witness to a father-son relationship heading downhill. Teenaged Igor (Jeromie Renier), a shaggy-blond ringer for Jonny Lang, lives with his father Roger (Olivier Gourmet) in a dumpy apartment. Igor has an apprenticeship fixing cars, but mostly he helps his dad in the "family business," which is exploitation of illegal immigrants. Thriving just barely on a black-market regimen, father browbeats, cheats, insults, and otherwise just doesn't care for the hopeful arrivals who count on him. Igor is established early as a kid who could go either way--respectful and friendly, or coldly self-centered with no thought of tomorrow.

Just before its midpoint, the movie kicks into harsher moral gear when Igor is trapped into helping his father not assist an African tenant/employee who is dying. Igor clearly feels uncomfortable with Roger's brute disinterest in another person's tragedy, but what can he do? He has no resources, no clue as to any other way to go. Luckily, Igor does have a sharper--and maybe more naïve--moral compass, and so by sheer will he stumbles into doing a few things right. He's no hero, though; don't look for Jonathan Taylor Thomas to do the Disney remake. Igor continues to lie but does what he can for the man's widow and child, and goes so far as to challenge his father where it hurts most--first with his money, then with a chain. (For a movie that's otherwise realistic and unpredictable, seeing an enslaver literally shackled is a bit more symbolic than necessary.)

Everything that happens in this movie, and in particular what Igor does in his own confused way, is pretty much a surprise. As in a documentary, things happen without much foreshadowing--characters don't speak of plot deadlines or spout catchy dialogue. The handheld work, always a reliable route to edginess, supports the tone. And this canny way of revealing a subject, of discovering (instead of proclaiming) a theme, pays off in a fairly long section where nothing particularly violent or dangerous happens but a solid cloud of dread still prevails. Not knowing what could happen, seeing just how cold and pathetically manipulative Roger is, it's possible to imagine any of several possible fates for poor Igor.

And when one finally does reveal itself, it's in keeping with his character's buildup but it's also presented simply. He will grow into himself, but also stumble some more. Like any serious case study, Igor's situation and his struggles remain an ongoing saga. And like any truly wise movie, La Promesse leaves something worth thinking about, and even worrying about, at the end. Its "social problem" comes off the shelf from an obvious category, but its telling is one of a kind.

Ma vie en rose (My Life in Pink) starts Friday at the Uptown Theatre; La Promesse starts Friday at U Film Society as part of "French Watch," its French-language film series running throughout February.

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