Fresh Faces: Leonor Serraille on Her Cannes Competition-Bound ‘Mother and Son’

·3 min read

Five years after winning Cannes’ Camera d’Or prize with her debut feature, “Jeune Femme,” French writer-filmmaker Leonor Serraille graduated to a competition slot with “Mother and Son,” a timely family drama spanning three decades. Serraille is one of the five female directors competing for this year’s Palme d’Or.

“Mother and Son” charts the lives of a young African woman, Rose, and two of her four children, Jean and Ernest, who come to France from the Ivory Coast in the 1980s with high ideals. Juggling her parenting responsibilities and low-paying jobs, Rose still aspires to find true love and to fulfill her own desires, but she ultimately struggles to reach a balance between her roles as a mother and a woman. Jean and Ernest, meanwhile, will take different paths to fitting into French society while coping with their identity conflicts and their mother’s life choices.

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Serraille said the idea of telling this story sparked from discussions she had with her partner, who emigrated to France from sub-Saharan Africa at a young age.

“This film is freely inspired by the life of my companion, with whom I have been living for 18 years, and who told me that when he was growing up he missed reading or seeing things that reflected his own experience,” said Serraille, adding that her partner told her that if she was going to tell this story, she had to “make it (her) own.”

And that’s precisely what she did. She invented characters and told the story as a sprawling, “romanesque” saga rather than a socially conscious drama. “I envisioned the film as a tale or a novel that would be told in images with impressionistic touches,” she said, adding that she was also inspired to “explore themes of motherhood and family because [she] had two children in two years.” Her three protagonists, Rose, Jean and Ernest are also richly layered characters whom she viewed as “reminiscent to 19th century literary heroes.”

Although it’s generally more difficult for female directors to get their second film financed, Serraille was able to access a larger budget for “Mother and Son,” possibly because she had won the Golden Camera in Cannes with “Jeune Femme.”

“We made ‘Jeune Femme’ with €800,000 and I filmed it with my camera on the shoulder most of the time; and for ‘Mother a Son,’ we had a bigger budget [€3.8 million ($3.9 million)] but it was a more complex film with more characters … and we needed more time to make it,” she said. Serraille said she gave the story a “richer canvas and scope by varying the shots and mise-en-scenes, while keeping the focus on the characters.”

The story is told chronologically starting in the 1980s but the narration is structured in three parts, each told through the eyes of the mother and her sons.

“It was a way to engage the audience enough to follow this family through 30 years, and keep the narration alive, as well as allow for resonances,” said Serraille, who mentioned Jane Campion’s “An Angel at My Table” as a reference for the film structure.

On the surface, “Mother and Son” marks a departure from “Jeune Femme,” whose tragicomic plot revolved around a young single woman going through a painful breakup. But in fact, both movies deliver multi-faceted portraits of women faced with adversity.

“Rose and Paula [the protagonist of ‘Jeune Femme’] have things in common, they’re both complex and singular female characters,” said Serraille, who praised Annabelle Lengronne for her performance, “spanning different ages and mixing lightheartedness, fantasy and tragedy.”

Jean and Ernest, meanwhile, are played by two sets of actors as children and adults from different backgrounds. Stephane Bak (“Twist à Bamako”) plays Jean, while Ahmed Sylla (“The Climb”), who is best-known for his roles in popular French comedies, stars as Ernest.

Produced by Blue Monday Prods., “Mother and Son” is being represented in international markets by MK2 Films.

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