Comédie de l’innocence (Son of Two Mothers or The Comedy of Innocence)

France (2000) Dir. Raoul Ruiz

On his ninth birthday precocious Camile (Nils Hugon) plays the footage he has been filming with his camcorder, full of obscure and disparate images. His behaviour suddenly changes and he suddenly announces to his mother Ariane (Isabelle Huppert) that he needs to visit the address of his “other” mother. Curious but upset Araine takes her son to this address where they meet Isabella (Jeanne Balibar) and immediately she and Camile act like genuine mother and son, with Camile referring to  Ariane by her name and not as mother and treating her as a friend. Afraid of losing her son, Araine agrees to let Isabella move into their house while they try to ride out this situation, in which both Isabelle and Camille seem firmly ensconced.

The French title for this film is very misleading as this is nothing like a comedy at all, as the alternate title is a direct translation of the title of the original Italian novel Il Figlio di Due Madri by surrealist writer Massimo Bontempelli, which makes more sense. Perhaps this change of title was a jape on the part of experimental Chilean director Raoul Ruiz, who no doubt embraced the obscurity of the film’s logic and the psychological aspect of the plot with glee. According to Ruiz this is a ghost story without any ghosts which is a very apt assessment although many people might not get that, making this essentially one for arthouse fans only.

Upon meeting Isabelle we learn that she had a son, Paul, who died aged nine-years old two years earlier to the day on Camile’s birthday. But the initial suggestion that Isabelle is a grieving mother projecting the role of her deceased son on Camile is given that extra chilling twist when Camile happily accepts that role with fervour, suddenly demoting his real mother until they reach a compromise when he suggests he has two mothers. This of course, sounds like a playful fantasy for a nine year-old but his willingness to accept Isabelle into his life seem like the lad is somehow possessed by her will, something which Ariane’s brother, psychologist Serge (Charles Berling) is keen to explore when Camile asks why he can’t have two mothers. In the meantime we have the two mothers both vying for Camile’s attention and affection in their own individual ways but not in such a competitive way as you might imagine, since the lad seems to adapt to each situation with unnerving ease.

Ruiz is keen to explore the idea of motherhood and what it actually means to be a mother, questioning the standard belief that the genetic bond between mother and child is the only acceptable answer. Maybe the answer lies elsewhere. Camile’s father Pierre (Denis Podalydès) is constantly away on business and when he is at home he savours his toy car collection which he forbids his son to play with. Similarly, Serge represents the male presence in the house upon Pierre’s absence, he too finding comfort with his model trains – the irony being that the kid of the tale is the only one with an “adult” toy of a camcorder. To complicate matters further, Camile’s video shows the eerie figure of a boy who Camile names as Alexandre who his parents believe is imaginary. But is he?

In true form of an esoteric filmmaker, Ruiz doesn’t supply many answers allowing the viewer to (try to) figure it out for themselves. We do learn that Isabelle is clearly emotionally frail and is imposing her will on Camile, but as long as he is wiling complicit, the lines remain blurred. This much at least gets something of a resolve but the sudden and oblique ending to the film proper leave sway too much in the air, unless you are on the same wavelength as Ruiz, which is entirely possible if arthouse films or indeed Ruiz’s catalogue is not familiar to you (I myself am in the latter category).

If the story and the implausibility of the premise is a handicap the film does boast superb performances from the two female leads – the always reliable Isabelle Huppert in a unusually sympathetic and emotionally cool role and Jeanne Balibar is deliciously creepy as the troubled Isabelle. However the undoubted star is young Nils Hugon who displays all of the requisite maturity needed for such a chilling performance of the frightening precocious Camile while still embodying the unburdened frivolity of your average nine year-old child. Hugon has not made a film since 2003 which is a shame as the promise he shows he is startling.

Comédie de l’innocence has an intriguing premise with a huge scope for immense psychological potential, but its often abstract approach coupled with the restrained playing out of the conflict leaves this film without any real resonance for the average viewer. Too subtle for its good, this is a textbook “Marmite” film.