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Mother and Son Review: A Moving Portrait About the Impossibility of Belonging

Rose (Annabelle Lengronne), the young mother at the center of writer-director Léonor Serraille’s Mother and Son, lands in Paris from Abidjan in the 1980s with her two young sons in tow. She’s at once exuberant and exhausted, almost as if she’s already accumulated too many losses to be dazzled by the deceitful promises of European life. But she’s also still young enough to nurture dreams of happiness—if not through work, as she may be destined to clean hotel rooms for the rest of her days, then through romantic love.

At the heart of Mother and Son is the idea that for the African immigrant woman in France the chips are always down when it’s their turn. No matter what she does, how hard she works, dreams, or loves, there’s never room for her—except when she’s used as cheap labor or disposable sex object. For one, Rose’s relatives host her at first, but she clearly overstays her welcome. They want her to marry the first nice guy who crosses her path, but she’s more interested in the pleasures of unpredictable sexual encounters, instilling self-confidence in her sons all by herself, and smoking on hotel rooftops staring at the Parisian sky.

Throughout the film, we watch as Rose and her sons, Ernest (Ahmed Sylla) and Jean (Stéphane Bak), come together and come apart across 20 years, always trying to find some semblance of stability but always failing. Things get financially better when Rose begins a relationship with Thierry (Thibaut Evrard), the rich owner of the hotel chain where she works. Ernest and Jean even get their own apartment in Rouen, northwest of Paris. But the situation is unsustainable. The price to pay for the more comfortable setup is Rose’s absence from the children’s lives, as she seems to always be on call for Thierry’s sexual needs, all while he lives a double life with his real—presumably French and presumably white—wife and children.

Little by little, Ernest and Jean’s frustrations and resentments grow toward Rose. Why bother fleeing Africa to be miserable in Europe? That seems to be the question whirring inside them. Nothing is communicated with conversations, but through gestures, or acting out, as when one brother holds the other in his arms, and when Jean and Thierry get into a fist fight.

Serraille captures the drama with an aesthetic gracefulness even when Mother and Son ventures into overtly topical terrain. At one point in the film, Ernest, now a philosophy teacher, steps outside the classroom to smoke a cigarette and is randomly accosted by white police officers who ask him where he’s “really” from. When he says “Abidjan,” it’s as if the police have never heard of the place. The sequence tells us in overtly clear terms what the film has been saying, ever so quietly, all along. Here, the cinematic restraint gives way to a didactical reminder that the impossibility of belonging is nothing short of a never-ending toxic gift, transmitted from one generation to the next, from mothers to sons, some of whom may find solace in philosophy, others in self-destruction or in going back home.

Consider that moment a glitch in an otherwise lovely film about feminine strength that also refuses to glorify motherhood. Mother and Son also ends with a heartbreaking sequence where Rose meets Ernst at a café after a long period of estrangement. She isn’t there to apologize for her maternal shortcomings or to be held accountable for those of their colonizing nation. Rose is there to deliver a sort of gift, that of brotherly love, belatedly avowed through a written letter. Rose’s delivery of this confession allows us to see that, at the very least, something unbreakable other than the immigrant’s curse gets passed on from brother to brother.

Cast: Annabelle Lengronne, Stéphane Bak, Kenzo Sambin, Ahmed Sylla, Sidy Fofana, Milan Doucansi, Audrey Kouakou, Étienne Minoungou, Thibaut Evrard, Jean-Christophe Folly, Laetitia Dosch Director: Léonor Serraille Screenwriter: Léonor Serraille Running Time: 116 min Rating: NR Year: 2022