Wednesday, August 31, 2011

I’m Glad My Mother is Alive

Based on a tragic true story, I’m Glad My Mother Is Alive is a Grand Guignol horror show staged as reality TV.

Made by, say, Antichrist’s Lars von Trier, this overheated tale of unrequited love between a mother and the son she gave up for adoption when he was five would have been a hot and spicy psychological soup kept at a rolling boil. Instead, mostly for better but sometimes for worse, it’s filmed in a stripped-down, doggedly realistic style almost as severe as the one laid out by von Trier’s dogmatic Dogme rules. No music is audible to the audience that isn’t heard by the characters, sets look realistic to the point of drabness, no artificial light is apparent other than what comes from lamps controlled by the characters themselves, and hair, makeup and costumes are carefully calibrated to make beautiful actors look ordinary.

That last effort is particularly noticeable with Sophie Cattani, who plays Julie Martino, the mother of the title. In flashbacks to her son Thomas’s early childhood, when Julie was a young party girl, Cattani’s strong, Slavic-looking face looks model-gorgeous, the way Thomas remembers her looking. But when a near-grown Thomas (played by a smoldering Vincent Rottiers) shows up at Julie’s door 15 years later, leaking a volatile mix of fury, grief, and repressed sexual attraction, she’s someone you’d pass on the street without a second glance, with her baggy sweatpants, stringy hair and lined, slightly lumpy face. Has life has aged her prematurely, or was she never the glamour girl her young son saw her as? Either way, her transformation works, helping us understand that Julie is a shape shifter and can never be the emotional anchor Thomas longs for.

If the Dogme-lite approach works there, it slows things down when the narrative should be heating up. The film maintains the same neutral tone as Thomas tries to blend in with his rediscovered mother and five-year-old half-brother while keeping his adoptive mom, Annie (Christine Citti), at bay, slapping away the unconditional love she keeps offering him. The film starts to feel as stuck as Thomas as he shuttles back and forth between the two houses, occasionally ranting at one of his mothers but mostly keeping his emotions reined in.

Meanwhile, we toggle back and forth between the present and frequent flashbacks to Thomas’ childhood. The flashbacks start out informative and vibrant, conveying five-year-old Thomas’ perspective pungently. We see his mother and her lover the way he does, mostly as torsos bending over him or pairs of thighs passing by, their motives and words mostly inscrutable. And when his mother leaves pre-school-age Thomas alone for several days with his infant brother, charged with caring for him, it feels just right when the five-year-old first plays with the baby and then yells in frustration, throwing something when the crying baby can’t be consoled.

After a while, the flashbacks start to have rapidly diminishing returns, providing less significant information and feeling more like random anecdotes. But just as you’re almost lulled into thinking that nothing is going to happen, Thomas erupts, doing something that seems to surprise him as much as anyone. The scene is shocking precisely because it feels so realistic: It’s as if you went to sleep watching a movie and woke up just in time to witness an actual assault.

Written for The L Magazine

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