One of the more bankable entries screened at Venice this year, Raul Ruiz’s “Son of Two Mothers or the Comedy of Innocence” is an eerie tale of a boy who suddenly decides his real mother is another woman. Pic is a clever adaptation of a 1929 Italian novel by “magic realist” writer Massimo Bontempelli. The arty title could easily be amended by distribs aiming to reach broader audiences beyond the director’s usual following.
In its concern with doubles and the irrational, pic is on the same wavelength as Ruiz’s 1997 English-language thriller, “Shattered Image,” but more successful in combining his refined interests with a tense storyline able to intrigue mainstream viewers. Overtones of “The Sixth Sense” won’t hurt in attracting customers, though here the story revolves more around star Isabelle Huppert than the little boy.
Nine-year-old Camille (Nils Hugon) is the only child of a bourgeois Parisian couple (Huppert and Denis Podalydes), living in a nice big house full of the mother’s abstract paintings. Feeling neglected by his busy parents, he invents an imaginary friend to play with when he’s not in the park with his distracted baby-sitter (Laure de Clermont-Tonnerre). One day, looking strangely disturbed, he announces to mom Ariane that he wants to return to his “real” mother, who lives on the other side of town. He even takes her there, where the mystery deepens. He seems to know the apartment intimately. Ariane is even more perturbed when he throws his arms around Isabella (Jeanne Balibar), who insists he’s her lost son Paul, drowned in the Seine two years before. A clear case of reincarnation — or is it?
With nerves of steel, Ariane plays along with what she sees as Camille’s whim, allowing Isabella to come live at their house. Balibar’s elfish face hides a strongly seductive personality, and before long the whole family has fallen under her influence. With the father out of town, Ariane’s psychiatrist brother, Serge (Charles Berling), tries to take his place as a father figure for the lonely, spoiled and clever Camille. There are skeletons in the closet, and the pretty baby-sitter seems like an apprentice witch. Meanwhile Camille, the boy with two mothers, tapes everything on his camcorder.
Ruiz, co-scripting with Francoise Dumas, draws out the story’s ambiguous, inexplicable dimension, aided by the disquieting perfs of Huppert and Balibar. Objects assume mysterious importance: Isabella’s apartment contains an African sculpture of a woman with two heads, while Ariane displays a lithograph of the judgment of Solomon, in which the real mother of a baby is revealed as the woman willing to give up the child to save his life. Most viewers will be relieved to find much explained in the end, while others will appreciate pic’s lingering taste of existential mystery.