Dir: Sébastien Lifshitz
Cert: n/a • France: 58 min • Epicentre Films • June 19, 2013
Michael Langan reviews
In 2013 Sébastien Lifshitz’s documentary, Bambi, won the Teddy Award for Best Documentary at the Berlin International Film Festival, one of a series of prizes for films exploring LGBT themes as decided by an independent committee of judges. Bambi tells the remarkable story of Marie-Pierre Pruvot, a French transsexual who became one of the most famous and long-standing performers at Le Carrousel de Paris, the Parisian nightclub where the Travesty Revue drew sell-out crowds. Pruvot, now 78, tells her story in conventional documentary fashion – straight to camera with no interventions from her interviewer – intercut with archive performance footage and Pruvot’s own home movies, filmed on Super 8. This standard, even old-fashioned, format works here partly because the world of the story is so fascinating, but mainly because Pruvot herself is such an intelligent, thoughtful and articulate subject.
Born Jean-Pierre Pruvot in a small Algerian town (then a French colony) in 1935, she tells how, from an early age, she would wear her sister’s hand-me-down dresses and insisted on growing her hair long. It was when she was sent away to school that she was forced to leave all of that behind and live as the boy she felt she wasn’t. It was during these years, Pruvot says, that she plunged herself into books, films and music as a way of constructing and composing her own identity. At the age of fifteen Pruvot went to live with an aunt, a woman she describes as a ‘blessing’ because, unlike Pruvot’s own mother, she tacitly accepted her nephew’s nature and provided a safe space in which to explore it. She also gave young Jean-Pierre a job working behind a bar and this was where Pruvot met her first love, and first lover, Ludo.
Ludo was older than Jean-Pierre and Pruvot describes how, having taken him to the family home for the weekend, her mother discovered them tucked up in bed together. It was the ensuing confrontation that sealed in Pruvot’s mind the determination to go to Paris and lead the life she wanted to lead. A few years previously the performers from Le Carrousel had toured Algeria, and Pruvot’s aunt had taken the impressionable Jean-Pierre to see them. This revelation gave Pruvot a glimpse of an alternative life, a possible existence that seemed to fit the identity Jean-Pierre had constructed.
Throughout the 1950s and 60s Le Carrousel was one of the main attractions in Paris. It provided a haven and a sanctuary for gay men and transsexuals who might have otherwise found themselves working the streets, and it was here that the now Marie-Pierre Pruvot managed to talk herself into a job, taking the stage name ‘Bambi’ and going on to perform there for over 20 years. She was, and still is, extraordinarily beautiful. Pruvot acknowledges with classic French insouciance that Bambi and her fellow performers were seen by many in the audience as ‘circus freaks.’ A film from the time shows footage of the Travesty Revue with an admonishing voiceover describing the ‘monstrosities’ on view as immoral and sick individuals. Popular they may have been but theirs was by no means an easy existence. These were living scandals, walking horrors, feted and feared in equal measure, something Pruvot dismisses with a shrug.
Some of the most famous names from that era are afforded brief cameos in the documentary, notably Capucine (French for nasturtium flower) and Coccinelle (Ladybird). The film could have shown more of these, so captivating are they as performers, but what there is offers a tantalizing glimpse of a glamorous surface masking and highlighting some incredible struggles and brave individuals. Coccinelle (Jacqueline Charlotte Dufresnoy) was particularly pioneering, being the first French person to have gender reassignment surgery. In 1960 she married her first husband in Notre Dame Cathedral (having agreed to being baptized again as a woman), forcing the French state to recognise transsexuals’ right to marry. This episode is documented in a remarkably sympathetic and supportive (for the time) newsreel report of the wedding. Years later, Coccinelle would go on to found the organisation Devenir Femme (To Become Woman) and became one of the main campaigners in France for the rights of transsexuals.
Bambi decides to follow in Coccinelle’s footsteps by having ‘the operation,’ a decision seen as too extreme by many of her fellow performers who prefer to live mainly as women or as young men with their mothers. Bambi herself insists that her own mother comes to live with her, which she does, and they seem to carve out an uneasy relationship based on an understanding of the difficulties each of them faces in the circumstances. So off Bambi trots to Casablanca, to have an operation with an 80% chance of success. The bravery involved in this can’t be overstated, but Pruvot talks about the decision with distinctly French élan. What else is there to be done?
Bambi continues to perform at Le Carrousel until she’s in her mid-thirties, then, with the same steely determination and presence of mind that has characterized her whole life, gives it all up to go back to school where she passes her Baccalaureat and then enrolls in The Sorbonne. Pruvot’s life then takes an unexpected turn, causing her to question everything that has happened and everything she has striven for up to that point. I won’t give it away.
Sébastien Lifchitz has created a very clear, direct, narrative here, as determined by Pruvot’s telling of her own story in her own way, and there is an element of performance in that. Some other voices might have been a good idea – Pruvot’s siblings perhaps? – and the film could easily have been extended to feature length. As it is, this is sixty minutes in Bambi’s company that left me wanting more. More than anything, what you take away from this film is an approach to life that faces up to, and faces down, the challenges that present themselves. Marie-Pierre Pruvot is an inspirational figure because she dared to create the person she knew she is, rather than remain the person she was born as.