FINAL PROJECT: FANTASY & IDENTITY IN BELGIAN CINEMA







Abstract

This paper compares the filmic ways in which two Belgian directors--Golden Globe winning director, Alain Berliner, and first-time director, Nic Balthazar--use fantasy to provide different perspectives on identity. Both directors blend elements of fantasy with character-driven narrative to explore issues not typically addressed in film :  transgenderism and autism. In Berliner's Ma vie en rose (1997), the seven-year-old "girlboy" Ludovic Fabre escapes to a fluorescent TV world to live out his cross-dressing fantasies. While edgy teen Ben Vertriest turns to the world of online gaming to escape his harsh reality in Balthazar's Ben X (2007).
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Ben X (2007)
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Ma vie en rose (1997)

In a country divided along linguistic borders, Belgians are no strangers to identity crisis. Therefore, it should come as no surprise that Belgian directors focus on issues of identity in many of their films. In 1997, Brussels-born filmmaker Alain Berliner took home the Golden Globe for best foreign film for his heartwarming portrayal of a gender-confused child in Ma vie en rose. Ten years later, another Belgian, Nic Balthazar, awed audiences with the story of an autistic teenager in the cinematic adaptation of his novel, Ben X. Both directors punctuate their character-driven films with fantasy sequences that provide the subjectivity their troubled protagonists cannot articulate.

Ludovic Fabre, the leading character in Berliner's Ma vie en rose, is just a child. However, unlike other boys his age, Ludovic wants nothing more in the world than to be a girl – and he has the unwavering belief that he will one day become one. To live out his fantasy, Ludovic occasionally applies his mother’s red lipstick and slips on his sister’s princess gown. When he does this at the Fabre family’s welcoming party he confuses neighbors and mortifies his parents. Only Ludovic’s grandmother – convinced it’s just a phase – thinks it best to let him act out his fantasy.

Eventually, Ludovic's discomfiting tendency to cross-dress and insistence that he will one day marry his father's boss's son, Jérôme, prompt his parents to hire a psychotherapist. During the weekly sessions, Ludovic keeps to himself as he listens to his parents chew out the psychoanalyst for failing to “fix” him. When he finally opens his mouth, Ludovic explains that he is a “girlboy” due to scientific error – God misplaced one of his X-chromosomes. Ludovic’s adolescent sister, Zoe, tries to explain the biological impossibility of real sex change, but Ludovic instead convinces himself that he, too, will one day have his period. Ludovic later shares this misinterpretation with Jérôme and proves his femininity by peeing sitting down. To protect their son, Jérôme’s parents convince him that if he continues to be friends with Ludovic he will assuredly go to hell. With only his grandmother there to support him, Ludovic turns to the plastic wonderland of his favorite TV star, the barbie-esque Pam for comfort.

In Pam’s dollhouse, Ludovic is free from his parents and their gender stereotyping. He frolics in his princess’s gown unperturbed and admires the vibrant dreamscape from above as Pam holds his hand in flight. Berliner uses an intense palate of pinks and purples to convey the lively tone of Ludovic's imaginative playground. Film analyst, Kate Ince, observes that Pam's "...flower-filled technicolor universe is as heterosexual normative a world as can be dreamt, but 'queered' by means of its excessive, colored and kitschy aesthetic" (Ince 4). This 'queered' world not only contributes to the film’s altogether playful mood, but is also critical to the film’s conclusion. In another dreamlike sequence, Ludovic’s mother enters the world of Pam through a billboard and comes to understand her son’s transgender feelings. The phantasmagoria that is Pam’s imaginary universe provides the acceptance the real world lacks and at the same time characterizes Ludovic and his queer desires.

In the same way that Ludovic’s naiveté constrains him, asperger’s syndrome limits the social abilities of Ben Vertriest, the title-character from Balthazar’s debut film, Ben X. Ben’s condition makes it nearly impossible for him to lead a normal life. He is hypersensitive and prone to uncontrollable bursts of violence. To control his surprising temper, Ben keeps track of his anxiety level by wrapping a heart-rate monitor around his chest. Frequently targeted by bullies, Ben takes refuge in the fantasy landscapes of Archlord, an online gaming world where he can be whoever he wants to be.

Ben plays Archlord from 5:45 to 6:33 each morning. When uttered, the name of his online avatar – Ben X – roughly sounds like the Flemish phrase “ben niets”, meaning “I am nothing” – which is ironic because in Archlord, Ben is something. His level-80 character represents strength and demands respect. Ben X’s ability to slay dragons and storm castles earns him needed companionship. Through frequent quests, Ben forms a bond with female Archlord enthusiast, Scarlite – whom he plans to meet in real life.

Outside of Archlord, Ben holds himself to in-game standards but is savagely bullied nonetheless. Balthazar mixes Archlord elements into Ben's routine life and varies the camera movement to illustrate Ben's uneasy character. Ben's weapons – an MP3 player and handheld video camera – may fight noise and capture acts of cruelty, but they cannot defend him against his tormentors like his alter ego’s sword and shield might. Ben likens his vocational school enemies, Desmet and Bogaert, to a pair of computer-generated Orcs. When Bogaert strikes Ben on the back of the head with a paper ball in class, the flesh-stabbing blow from an Orc’s crude ax rings in Ben’s ear. Later that day, video of Ben pulling up his pants after a cruel act of bullying – orchestrated by none other than Desmet and Bogaert – goes viral on the internet.

With the help of Scarlite’s apparition, Ben plans his revenge. He stages his suicide, leaves a recorded tape as proof, and waits for his funeral to reveal himself. The stunned looks on the faces of his classmates suggest that Ben’s plan was a success. Ben’s bullies presumably learned their lesson leaving Ben free to live the ordinary life he had always fought for.

Ostracized by those around them, the two protagonists from Ma vie en rose and Ben X turned to fantasy – Ludovic to the sensational world of Pam, and Ben to the medieval countryside of Archlord – to find their true identities. Berliner uses color to contrast Pam's fabulous world with the drab, insensitive suburb Ludovic grows up in. And Balthazar shows us - through an Archlord lens - how blended Ben's view of reality really is.  Although the two films were created a decade a part and deal with different social issues, both film’s successfully incorporate elements of fantasy in developing central characters.

FILM CLIPS

Ben Vertriest - De Marsman.

This clip uses flashback to develop Ben's character. The camera moves nauseatingly fast, disorienting the viewer. We see the cobblestone ground from Ben's point-of-view and are given a map from Ben's favorite online-game, Archlord, for direction.

Ben was just informed that he will be "getting it" from two obnoxious bullies. He then thinks about times in his life when he was bullied or "getting it". In the first sepia-toned flashback, we see Ben hiding under a table as his elementary schoolmates bang on the top of it. Then the transition back to the present is made through a close-up that highlights the uneasiness of Ben's past and present eyes.

Ben again thinks in flashback to a time he was locked in a bathroom stall and another time when he was tied up to a tree and called names. The pedestrian traffic light turns green and we are back to the present. As he approaches the entrance to his vocational school, Ben sees the two bullies, but not as they really are. As he does so often in the film, he sees them as baddies from his Archlord computer game. The uptempo music grows silent as Ben enters the gate.

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POV shot
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Ben's uneasy gaze
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Flashback
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Archlord bullies

Ben's endgame

Epic music from Archlord plays as Ben frames his suicide. This pivotal scene from Ben X gives viewers a sense of Ben's emotional state as he drops off the edge. The sea water drifts by as Ben discusses the difference between dying in a computer game and dying in real life.



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Long shot
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Ben drops out of frame
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Bird's eye view
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Documented 'Proof'

Ludovic Fabre - The Princess

At the Fabre family's welcoming party, Pierre Fabre introduces his "tribe" to the neighborhood. Ludovic, the youngest son, is greeted to confused applause. The crowd mistakes Ludovic--dressed in a princess dress--for his older sister Zoe, whom Pierre had just mentioned. Pierre tries to reassure the stunned crowd that his son is only joking.







Ludovic frequently dresses as a princess in Ma vie en rose. In fact, when with his grandmother, Ludovic fantasizes about his ideal world. In his fantasy, he sees himself in a white satin dress overlooking the plastic wonderland from his favorite television program, "Le monde de Pam".

Ludovic's quasi-suicide

 Ludovic had just been bullied for his femininity in the locker room at school--his brothers failed to stand up for him--and goes missing. In this scene, Ludovic's distressed mother finds her son hiding in a domestic freezer.

At first, his mother tries to calm herself by lighting a cigarette, but she soon notices a trail of frozen food packages strewn all over the garage floor. She gingerly steps toward the freezer and opens it to find her son.

While in the freezer, Ludovic's eyes are closed, signaling that he is following his Granny's advice and imagining the world the way he wants it to be (see video clip above).

Ludovic's dramatic suicide attempt is much like Ben's suicide-revenge in Ben X. Both protagonists believe that in order to evoke change they must resort to theatrics.

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Close-up of Hanna Fabre (Michèle Laroque)
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Over the shoulder shot of Ludovic (Georges Du Fresne)

Bibliography

Addiego, Walter. "Promise of 'Ben X' is undelivered". San Francisco Chronicle. 26 Dec. 2008.
http://www.sfgate.com/cgi-bin/article.cgi?f=/c/a/2008/12/26/DDSO14RBPP.DTL

Ben X. Dir., writ. Nic Balthazar. MMG Film & TV Production.
Perf. Greg Timmermans. Film Movement, 2007.

"Critique du film Ben X." Cinema.ch 2007.*
http://www.cinema.ch/film/Ben-X

Ince, Kate. "Queering the Family? Fantasy and the performance of sexuality and gay relations in French cinema 1995-200".
Studies in French Cinema; 2002, Vol. 2 Issue 2, p90, 8p

Kühn, Heike. "Cinema as metaphor: Montreal 2007". MediaDevelopment. 2008. p.57, 3p

Ma vie en rose. Dir., writ. Alain Berliner. Writ. Chris Vander Stappen.
Perf. Georges Du Fresne and Michèle Laroque. Canal+, 1997.

"Revue: Ma vie en rose". P.R. Cahiers du cinéma no. 514 (available at UNC libraries)*

* sources in French