Tomboy (2011)

Do not let the name fool you. This is not a film as simple as its title. Possibly depicted is a young transgender and, therefore, is one of a limited corpus of works that is. Today, it was Mubi’s film of the day, and I was excited by the prospect of having a transgender protagonist. The movie was wholesome, but ended in dull disappointment. 

The critics (take, for example, Stanley Kauffmann, Dustin Chang, Richard Knight Jr.) have all decided to ignore Mikäel’s resistance to assignation as a girl. They use his assigned name, Laure, and pronoun him she/her. If Jeanne and Lisa (children) are able to correctly gender Mikäel, why do the critics (adults) struggle? Half the fault lies in the hands of Céline Sciamma.

As Ian Thomas Malone says “[f]ilms obviously don’t need happy endings”, but Tomboy (2011) does not provide an “an explanation for depicting such malice on screen”. Most should be aware of the societal failings to accept people who are transgender, and one can concede that Sciamma reflects this. But film is fiction. Fiction has possibilities to show the unseen, the unheard. Just because it might be a reality for everyone, does not mean the film also has to present this. It would have been far more effective and empowering to represent one of the many households that are accepting and supportive in the face of a cruel society. This is, for sure, not the only way this sort of film can be made. But Sciamma creative decisions took a more damaging pathway, a circularity where Mikäel reassumes the name Laure: “Je m’appelle Laure [I am called Laure]”.

‘Might it be too early to define them’, one asks. In Orla Smith’s words, “It’s simply clear that they’re happiest as Mikhael”. A will that both critics and Mikäel’s mother ignore: he must face reality eventually. Any wholesome realisation of a desire crumbles as his mother dresses him in an ill-fitting dress and exposes his ‘pretending’ to the neighbourhood. This final statement of name is a result of this pressure: of incoming return to school where he will be known as Laure, of no way of anyone seeing him as Mikäel again. The ending music would make you think this is some sort of happy ending, as if Mikäel finally knows who he wants to be.

The discord between music and gender/sexuality confusion is an infuriating, thoughtless ending. However, minor successes can be picked out in the shots of children huddled, playing. No gender distinguishes them nor does any classification. It is adult society that imposes such distinctions. Yet, this does not appear to be the main take away from the film. The critics have drawn entirely different, backward readings: 

“Why does she do this? Partly a child’s sheer impersonating playfulness, I’d say, partly a deeply teasing curiosity—about what it would be like to be a boy. She continues the pretense for days.”

Stanley Kauffmann | New Republic

“Tomboy is just as simple as the title suggests. It tells a[n] innocent deceit by a ten year old Laure (Zoé Héran) pretending to be a boy in order to play with neighborhood kids.” 

Dustin Chang | Floating World

The implication of both quotations is the untraversable boundaries of gender, fixed to anatomy. As for deceit, I fail to see it at all or even the harm it causes. This “deceit”, for Chang, is merely to play with the group. It is that “simple”.

The critical response show either a film executed badly or one antagonistic/damaging to the LGBTQIA+ community. I am sure Sciamma had intended to produce something progressive, but it was not enough. It is true, the overwhelming question is: “how long can she [he] pull it off?”, not criticisms of gender boundaries. I believe that this film is more damaging to the gender non-conforming and transgender community than it is helpful. The end’s pessimism leaves no future or possibility for one to be happy and true to themself. A ‘keep it inside and quiet’ moral lesson prevails by the end