Home Video Hovel- I’m Glad My Mother Is Alive
Not everyone is equipped to be a parent, including a lot of people with kids. And not just the obvious candidates likes homeless drug addicts, Satanists, and unwed teenage mothers. Some people simply don’t have the emotional faculties to successfully manage the psychic and corporeal well being of another human life, even if they don’t meet the outward definition of “unfit.” It’s a hard truth for our family-values oriented society to swallow, but it’s not something everyone is built for. But when a parent cedes their legal responsibilities to a child—voluntarily or involuntarily—what remains of that parent’s obligation to the estranged offspring’s psychological health? These are the questions asked by I’m Glad My Mother is Alive, from the French father-son filmmaking team of Claude and Nathan Miller, out this week on DVD.
Mother follows the unhappy tale of Thomas (as an adult played by Vincent Rottiers), who, along with his younger brother, was as a boy given up for adoption by troubled single mother Julie (Sophie Cattani.) The early part of the film uses flashbacks to track Thomas’ abandonment through his adoption by adoptive parents Yves and Annie (Yves Verhoven and Christine Citti) and troubled early adolescence. Julie, for her part, is clearly ill suited to this whole “motherhood” thing, neglectful and outwardly ambivalent toward her offspring. Financially strapped, it’s even implied she works part-time as a prostitute. Not necessarily antithetical to successful care giving, to be sure (I’m sure there are plenty of great Sex Worker Soccer Moms out there), but not exactly the stuff of gold-star parenting either—especially when it involves leaving you five- and one-year-old completely alone for long stretches of time. Before you know it, Julie abdicates her parental throne. Thomas and little brother Francois are shuffled off to the Jouvets, a pair of well-meaning-but-impatient musicians who don’t exactly deserve a star on the Parental Walk of Fame either. Still lacking the nurturing element he craves, Thomas remains obsessed with his biological mother.
Growing from a lonely, sullen child to a lonely, sullen adult, Thomas finally works up the nerve to reestablish contact with his estranged mother, which Julie, further worn down by the ensuing two decades of disappointment and depression, meets with typical ambivalence. Here the film really takes off, becoming a character study of Thomas’ conflicting emotions toward his mother, a confused tangle of longing, resentment, jealousy, Oedipal ickiness, and a bottomless need for the kind of love Julie is all but biologically incapable of providing.
It should go without saying that certain boundaries are crossed that should not be crossed, and that to this Thomas reacts poorly. The Millers and their collaborator Alain Henry do a remarkable job of balancing both hope and despair. For the first two-thirds of the film, it’s virtually impossible (minus any outside knowledge of the film or the “true story” upon which it is allegedly based) to tell if the movie’s going take a turn for either A) the tragic, B) the heartwarming, or C) the Spanking the Monkey. But suffice to say, the film’s title is at once sincere, ironic, and a complete spoiler.
The main attraction here is the well-crafted script, and the performances of Rottiers and Citti. Working together, the script and actors create a brilliantly nuanced character study. The tension steadily escalates throughout, with a resolution that lends itself to a variety of interpretation without trying too hard to be purposefully ambiguous. It’s a compliment to say that the film doesn’t feel “Writers’ Lab”-y to in the way virtually every “thoughtful” contemporary American middlebrow Indiewood picture does, with the writers clearly making a concerted effort to ensure every character has a perfectly balanced ledger of positive and negative traits (because making value judgements about characters is somehow anathema to art, apparently.) On the contrary, the characters in Mother are completely real, their various flaws and redeeming qualities an innate product of something eternal in their DNA.
I wasn’t completely blown away by I’m Glad My Mother is Alive. I admired the screenplay and the performances, but my emotional investment was limited. I don’t know why. Maybe it was the film’s bland visual presentation, or maybe I just hate French people (Freedom Fries, etc.) But really, I think that there simply wasn’t much in the story for me to relate to on a personal level, as both the product of very loving, attentive set of parents and as someone without any interest in being a parent myself, now or ever. I’ve never felt so lucky to be underwhelmed.