When his mother spoke, Ernest remembers, everything sounded important. “I cling to her light,” he tells us in voiceover, an adult remembering how that felt. The Ernest he is recalling is just a little boy (Milan Doucansi), snuggled against Rose (Annabelle Lengronne, a wonderfully vivid presence), with his grave and clever older brother Jean (Sidy Fofana) sitting opposite on a train taking them from Cote d’Ivoire to a new French life.
Mother and Son is the story of that life – less story, perhaps, than a tapestry of carefully embroidered details – over 25 years, focusing on each of the three characters in turn. The writer and director, Leonor Serraille, is a young white woman educated at the Sorbonne; she returns to Cannes in competition after winning the Camera d’Or with Jeune Femme in 2017. Nevertheless, the film has the feel of autobiography, piled high with memories. Everything here clearly sounded important to Serraille, too.
We move through time in a lurching movement, each of the three characters moving forward to take center stage in turn. When the children are small, Rose is the star: a venturesome young woman whose parenting style is playful, ramshackle and somewhat intermittent. She and her sons live in a single room in a flat with her sister, brother-in-law and their children; family is what is important, says her brother-in-law. Sister Eugenie (Audrey Kouakou) gets her a job as a cleaner at the hotel where she works and throws a party to welcome her, hoping to match her up with a suitable man sooner rather than later.
Rose, however, is uninclined toward suitable men. She has sex on the roof with a hotel guest. She stays out drinking all night. She misses days at work, supine on the couch, while her sister covers for her and looks after all the children while she’s playing away. “The French take themselves so seriously!” Rose groans through a hangover. Those family ties are fraying rapidly.
We move to Jean, (now played by Stephane Bak) the math whiz-kid who wins a scholarship to a top senior school to sit the notoriously difficult baccalaureate and goes out with the cleverest girl in his class. Something turns in him, however; his life starts to crumble, while Ernest (Kenzo Sambin) looks on helplessly. Finally we return to Ernest as an adult (Ahmed Sylla), quietly seething with anger at his mother. He has done well – he is a college teacher – but Rose’s inadequacies during his childhood now seem unforgivable to him.
Through all this there are moves from Paris to Rouen and back again, peppered with stand-alone set pieces including a peculiar swingers party at a hunting lodge for the employees of the hotel where Rose works. A succession of men passes through Rose’s life; her wedding to the pompous Jules Caesar (Jean-Christophe Tolly) is another set piece, a slice of immigrant life. All this is clustered not so much around a plot as a passage of years, though the precise sequence of events is not always clearly signaled. There is a bit of wondering where you are, a distracting vagueness.
Specific moments, however, speak a little too crisply of research. An ugly episode of police harassment, when the adult Ernest goes to buy a coffee and is bailed up and frisked by the police, feels like a news story that has been wedged into the narrative. When Rose chides the adult Ernest for taking on the ways of white folks — specifically “imaginary diseases … depression, that’s not for us!” — we are obliged to note the cultural gap between generations, a common phenomenon in upwardly mobile families. A little too often, Mother and Son reads that way, as a dossier of the immigrant experience. That experience is admirably well observed and largely absorbing but, like Rose as a flatmate, it’s a little too much in a small space.
Not that the wretchedness of Rose’s life can or should be avoided or ignored: Full marks to Serraille and Lengronne for making her mark. It is worth noting that the French title of Mother and Son is Le Petit Frere. It is little brother Ernest’s bond with Jean — the family’s beacon of brilliance and his own playground protector, tyrannical homework supervisor and boon companion — that is its film’s ostensible subject. Jean was his great love; he blames his mother for his loss. Even so, the English title is a better fit. Because this is really Rose’s story: the tiny tragedy of an unknown woman who left the country she knew for the sake of her boys, only to lose them both.