Yesterday I saw "I'm glad my mother is alive" ("Je suis heureux que ma mère soit vivante") , a much-praised French film which centres on the aftermath of an adoption, and is apparently based on a real case. It starts with 12-year-old Thomas, on holiday with his family, askig his father if his mother - that is, his birth mother - was pretty. The story unfolds in a series of flashbacks: four-year-old Thomas's young and not very bright mother Julie, doing her not very good best, goes off to work of some unspecified kind at night, leaving him in charge of his toddler brother. They're found by the authorities and taken into care. Then adoption is suggested, and the mother agrees. But on her last visit, she can't bring herself to explain to them that they're getting new parents. Later we see Thomas with a story and photos headed "Ma Mere", but that's the only hint we get that there may have been some attempt to help him understand his past. At 12 he gets furious when his schoolmates tease him about the adoption and his mother, attacks his brother for telling them, and says awful things to his father about not being able to have kids. His parents don't seem to have the faintest clue about why he's acting like this; they just get mad and pack him off to boarding school. He runs away, manages to persuade a social worker to give him his mother's new married name and address, and turns up on her doorstep. Now married and pregnant, she doesn't recognise him. Devastated, he leaves, hating her. At 18 he's working as a mechanic and living with his adoptive mother and brother - his father has had a complete mental breakdown - and he decides to see Julie again. On her own now, with a little boy, she's willing to have him around, and he's useful with the boy. What follows is an extremely moving and convincing portrait of a confused young man who finds himself attracted to his mother (who is, after all, only 17 years older than him), wants to look after his little half-brother, and gets driven out of his mind by love-hate feelings he can't understand. One day he stabs her and thinks he's killed her. But as the title suggests, he hasn't, and there is a resolution of sorts at the end.
The adoptive parents seem to have had absolutely no warning or advice on what might happen and how to deal with it - hence their incomprehension, anger and ineptitude. Yes, I know it's a fictional story, but sadly, it's probably broadly accurate all the same. The older a child is when the adoption takes place - Thomas was five - the more likely it is that very serious issues will arise later. At least in this case the children shared their new parents' ethnicity, country and language.
Genetic sexual attraction between opposite-sex children and parents, or siblings, who meet each other again as sexually mature adults is a well-known phenomenon. Usually, as in the film, it's not acted on, but the feelings involved must be incredibly confusing and distressing.
What interests me here is the lack of understanding of these adoption issues shown by much of the publicity and responses. Thomas's reactions to his situation as he grows up seem to be viewed as really weird and extreme, and also as basically all Julie's fault for "abandoning" him.
In my view, the film handles all the complex currents involved with immense accuracy, skill and sensitivity, thanks to both the direction (Claude Miller and his son Nathan) and the stunning performances of both child and adult actors. The stabbing comes as a terrible shock, and was the only part I found hard to credit - but I assume it did happen in the real-life situation this is based on (I haven't been able to find out).
COMMENTS: Update: the deleted comments were Chinese spam. I'm now moderating all comments and this problem seems to have disappeared.
- 25.07.14 | Benedicte Page - The Bookseller Jonathan Cape has confirmed it is bringing forward publication of Howard Jacobson's novel *J*, which...
3 hours ago