With ‘Mother and son,’ in cinemas on Wednesday, French filmmaker Léonor Serraille directs an often marginalised story, that of the intimacy of a family with an immigrant background, in this case from Côte d’Ivoire, and offers intense roles to a cast of black French actors.
The film, in competition at Cannes in 2022, is the work of a 37-year-old director who won the Caméra d’Or in 2017 with her previous opus, 'Young Woman.'
For 'Mother and son,' the filmmaker chose to draw on the story of her partner, and father of her two children, to tell the story of Rose (Annabelle Lengronne) over a period of thirty years.
Rose does nothing like anyone else. If she left her native Côte d’Ivoire and her husband for the suburbs of Paris, taking her two sons with her, it was not for economic reasons, but to satisfy “her thirst for freedom,” the director explained to French news agency AFP during the Cannes Festival.
A family novel about 'characters missing from the cinema'
She is the master of her own destiny and has taken it upon herself to raise her children alone, preferring to seduce the men she likes rather than give in to the advances of the man who promises to take her and her children under his wing.
The film watches Rose and her children, Jean and Ernest, grow and evolve – parental and sibling relationships, the ages of life, friendship and love forming the core of the subject matter, with racism and the tug of war over identity only featuring as a backdrop.
A family novel, “this story tells of things about my country that are not told, that are internalised,” says Léonor Serraille, who wanted to make “a family novel” about “characters that are missing from the cinema.”
Rejecting any “militant approach” and assuming that she can “appropriate any subject as long as it is fair,” Serraille, who is white, offers, with this film, first-choice roles to a whole cast of black actors. Behind the headliners, black actors still face a scarcity of roles in a French cinema that is timidly trying to open up to diversity issues.
African only in appearance
'Mother and son' first reveals the talent of Annabelle Lengronne, remarkable in the role of Rose over three decades. “It’s the courage of this character, who chooses to emancipate herself, that made me very keen to play her,” the actress, seen in the comedies 'Les Kaïras' and 'La Fine équipe' (2016), and in the drama 'Filles de joie,' explained to AFP.
“It’s a small story within the big one, without any miserabilism," far from the roles of “martyred women or courageous mothers, whose lives, for example sexual, are forgotten,” that are often offered to women of immigrant origin, she notes.
She points out that the role is purely “compositional”. Born anonymously in Paris, she grew up with adoptive parents from the Pyrenees and the Auvergne. “I am only African in appearance,” she says.
In addition to a gallery of secondary characters, several actors play her sons, including actor-comedian Ahmed Sylla ('L’ascension,' 'Les Femmes du Square') and Stéphane Bak, who plays Jean as a young adult.
Afro-Descendants 'have had it rough' in the French film world
“There is a host of unexplored stories in France. This is a beautiful testament to what we can give in the future," stresses Stéphane Bak, who also started as a comedian, when he was very young.
In addition to his role in Cédric Jimenez’s 'Novembre,' he played one of the main roles in Robert Guédiguian’s latest film, 'Twist à Bamako,' after an appearance in Wes Anderson’s 'The French Dispatch.'
"Afro-Descendants, as they say, have worked hard for years and they've had it rough,” Bak says. The “number of roles one can play” is increasing, he acknowledges, but “they are not yet given to everyone, nor as accessible” as the roles offered to whites.