Based on a true story, I'm Glad My Mother is Alive is a film about unrequited mother-love gone haywire -- and the price of bad parenting.
It lives and breathes in the performances of Vincent Rottiers and Maxime Renard, both of whom play Thomas Jouvet, as a young man and as an adolescent. Director Claude Miller moves back and forth in time, telling Thomas' story, giving us pieces of the puzzle of his life, as he tries -- seemingly fruitlessly -- to gain his mother's attention and affection.
His mother, Julie (Sophie Cattani), is a waitress who appears both unsuited to parenthood and uninterested in it. She lives in a single room with Thomas and his younger brother Patrick - who are taken away from her when Thomas is 4 and Patrick is 2, because she has left them alone while she goes to work. Eventually, she gives them up for adoption, figuring out that she's simply not equipped to take care of two kids.
They are adopted by a loving couple, Yves and Annie Jouvet. To Patrick -- rechristened Francois -- they are his parents because he was too young to remember his real mother. But Thomas has strong memories of her -- and, as a preteen, begins acting out over his adoptive parents' refusal to tell him anything about her.
As a young adult, he takes matters into his own hands, tracking her down and knocking on her door. She has married and divorced -- and now has another young son, who is Thomas' half-brother. Her youngest immediately gravitates to his new sibling and Thomas finds himself drawn to the youngster as well.
Julie, however, is another matter. While she has feelings for him, they seem surprisingly tangential -- as though he's someone she used to know but doesn't really care about. The harder she pushes away from him, the closer he tries to become.
And that lack of connection eats him up. Miller explores this idea -- of the need for connection and the effects of rejection, leading to an outburst of violence that will define Thomas for the rest of his life.
Watching this film reminded me of the section of the book and film, Freakonomics, in which Steven Levitt found statistics indicating a correlation between the legalization of abortion in the United States and a subsequent drop in the crime rate 20 years later. He postulated that the drop was due to a generation of unwanted children who were never born; his theory seemed to show that, in fact, the ability to choose to terminate a pregnancy led to fewer neglected children who grew up to act out in the same way that Thomas acts out here.
But that's not Miller's point with this film. Rather, he lets Thomas' longing and disappointment speak for itself. He is, ultimately, the little boy who doesn't understand and can't cope with the fact that his mother gave him away and doesn't regret it. It's a heavy emotional load, one he ultimately can't bear.
The film showcases subtle, painful performances by Rottiers and Renard, who play Thomas without making him needy or maudlin. Cattani gives Julie a chilly, dispassionate quality off which her children's love seems to bounce.
I'm Glad My Mother is Alive is wrenching stuff, the kind of unrequited love story that, unfortunately, remains all too common in the real world.