Léonor Serraille’s film Mother and Son contains moving strokes, but struggles to make a lasting emotional dent.
The director of the 2017 Camera d’or winner Montparnasse Bienvenue returns to Cannes with an ambitious narrative chronicling the life of an Ivorian mother and her sons as they attempt to build lives in Paris and, later, Rouen. Their journey doesn’t bear the usual marks of projects — often, but not always, helmed by white directors — that peddle in the degradation of nonwhite people, but the movie succumbs to some pesky clichés.
Mother and Son
The Bottom Line
Ambitious but evasive.
It doesn’t start that way, though. Mother and Son traverses several decades, beginning in the 1980s, and is split evenly between three perspectives: Rose (Annabelle Lengronne) and her sons Jean and Ernest (played by different actors as they age). The first part follows Rose soon after she emigrates from Abidjan to Paris with 10-year-old Jean (Sidy Fofana) and 5-year-old Ernest (Milan Doucansi). The trio move into a small flat with extended family, and Rose gets a job as a hotel maid. They make their way through life with an infectious optimism, despite warnings that things will not always be easy.
Nevertheless, Rose fiercely guards her independence: She rejects early advances from Jules (Jean-Christophe Folly), a smooth-talking Ivorian who insists she needs to marry, and dates whomever she wants. Lovers come and go with an understated sense of drama. Rose goes out dancing, alone and with others. “You’re in France and you’re acting like a princess,” Rose’s relative says at one point. Rose protests the admonishing tone, confidently signaling that the French are no better than her. With her sons, Rose is playful, but firm. She encourages them, via vague speeches, to succeed, to do well and to never capitulate to their emotions — messaging that inevitably haunts their lives later on.
Lengronne’s sublime performance adds levity to a character that could have too easily been leaden. Her gift is in expressions, which she deploys with near perfect timing. Reacting to Jules’ loquacious manner of flirting, Lengronne furrows her eyebrows and purses her lips before letting out a snort. In response to a lover’s suggestion that the French are responsible for coffee, she wears a look of amusement and confusion. Pity the Frenchman holding such insular views.
As weeks turn into months, a kind of ennui advects Rose’s life like fog through a field — a slow transition that DP Hélène Louvart expertly maneuvers. Rose’s lifestyle does not suit her more conservative cousins, who harbor worries about what the neighbors might think. Meanwhile, the young mother yearns for a place of her own, more space and better schooling for her children. That opportunity comes in the form of a lover, Thierry (Thibaut Evrard), with whom she moves to Rouen.
Normandy doesn’t end up providing that solace. Mother and Son jumps a decade (another timestamp would have been useful here) and perspective. A teenage Jean (now played by Stéphane Bak) now anchors the story. His life is marked by the absence of Rose (who spends weekdays working in Paris) and the responsibility of taking care of Ernest (now played by Kenzo Sambin). The film tries to capture Jean’s isolation and depression, but here it is hampered by some hackneyed touches. He has an antagonistic relationship with his stepfather, and a strange one with his white girlfriend. Passing references are made to how race affects Jean’s experiences, but they were too subtle for this critic, especially considering the situations Jean finds himself in.
Mother and Son is about family — what it means to be a mother and a child. But it’s also about immigration, and inevitably race, and the tension between those definitions we adopt and those that are projected on to us. Jean’s story leaves much unexplored when it comes to complicating the layers of his identity: the eldest son of an increasingly emotionally distant woman, a Black man taught to suppress his emotions, an immigrant acclimating to a new environment, the largely white world that surrounds and suffocates him. No single one of these identities define him alone, but they do work in concert to contextualize his movement through the world.
Serraille tries harder to wrestle with these elements in Ernest’s tale — the third and final perspective. We trail the young man from his teenage years, when he is more easily accepted than his older brother, and then into adulthood (now played by Ahmed Sylla). Distance from his mother and brother, who abruptly returned to Ivory Coast, define his life. An interaction with French police is the closest the film gets to expressly dealing with race, and yet something about this scene feels less intimate than the exploration of gendered expectations in Rose’s segment of the story. I wondered: Is it a question of the film’s structure? A matter of its broad scope? Or does it come down to French skittishness when it comes to exploring race and racism within their own borders?
According to interviews included with press notes, Serraille was inspired to make Mother and Son because of her partner, who is African, and their kids. She talks about her wishes for the film, her desire to use it as a site of exploration, to “search for what is behind the things projected onto us.” That kind of probing into why identities are foisted upon us even if they don’t seem to fit requires a bit more intention and force than what Mother and Sons ultimately offers.