After his so-so foray into documaking with the Stateside-set “Marching Band,” veteran French helmer Claude Miller bounces back with troubled-youth drama “I’m Glad That My Mother Is Alive.” Co-directed, like “Band,” with younger blood — here, Miller’s 40-year-old son, Nathan — the pic has a restlessness and almost tactile feel, mirroring the young protag as he forms a curious relationship with the birth mother who once abandoned him. Awkwardly titled item is too small and lacking in saleable drama to make much impression as an offshore arthouse item, but should still get some lovin’ from fests. Gaul release is Sept. 30.
The film has had a long journey to the screen, originating 13 years ago as a project by Jacques Audiard, after he read an article by Emmanuel Carrere that was inspired by true events. Following a script by Alain Le Henry, the project ended up with Claude Miller, who did a rewrite with his son. Producer Jean-Louis Livi, who had been with the project since its inception, suggested Nathan Miller co-direct, after several shorts and handling second-unit camera on his father’s movies.
Claude Miller himself has always been such a chameleon director, working subversively in several genres and styles, that it’s difficult to spot what Miller fils may have brought to the table. Thematically (albeit from a different angle), the pic is linked with the director’s “Class Trip” and “A Secret,” which also explored troubled children-parent relations. Technically, the pic has a lean forward momentum that’s even more marked than in some of his previous movies.
The simple setup is rather confusingly established, as the first act crosscuts between past and present, with no signposts intially to guide the viewer. (Flashbacks are all shot with a static rather than handheld camera, though the visual contrast is not immediately apparent.) First seen at age 12, on holiday with parents Yves (Miller regular Yves Verhoeven, gentle) and Annie (Christine Citti, robust), Thomas Jouvet (Maxime Renard) is a troublesome kid who lives in his own universe and is always ready for a brawl when classmates rag him about being adopted.
His parents end up sending him to a boarding school, and from there, he decides finally to track down the woman, Julie (Sophie Cattani), who abandoned him — and his brother, Patrick — when he was 5. In the one section that rings false, the boy manages to convince a local government registrar to take pity on him and leak him Julie’s current address.
When Julie answers the door, pregnant, she doesn’t recognize him, and Thomas just stares and runs way. Cut to eight years later, and the adult Thomas (Vincent Rottiers), now a garage mechanic, finally summons up enough courage to present himself to Julie, with flowers and chocolate, as one of her lost sons.
It’s a crucial scene, already halfway through the movie, and the pic’s dramatic credibility depends on it. But Rottiers and Cattani have an immediate onscreen chemistry that works from the get-go: As Julie, now living on her own with a young son, guardedly welcomes Thomas in for a chat, it’s the start of a weird “courtship” between son and mother that leads to a surprising (and sudden) conclusion.
Though the nuances are untranslatable in English subtitles, their curious relationship is signposted in French by her always addressing him as “tu” (as a parent to a child) but him always calling her “vous” (as if to a date). But Rottiers’ withdrawn, subtly edgy perf — playing a role somewhere between lover and son — is full of small grace notes to which Cattani responds, in a warmer way.
The film’s long midsection would benefit from slight trimming, as it starts to lose direction and adds little to already established relationships.
Handheld camerawork manages to establish a sense of physical intimacy with the characters (often via closeup inserts) without becoming distracting. Ditto the cutting, which is restless (sometimes covering large ellipses) without being annoying. Vincent Segal’s music, bookending the pic, rapidly conjures up an atmosphere of disquiet.