A Life Like Any Other, the winner of The Silver Dove for best long documentary at this year’s DOK Leipzig, is an intimate portrait featuring four people and a dog. Still, it has the power to change the traditional idea of motherhood. It is particularly powerful because it is made by a daughter, Faustine Cros. This is her first feature-length documentary, and she used the family movies filmed by her father throughout her infancy as the raw material for her work. So the film is a sort of joint reconstruction which starts as the daughter discovers that her ageing mother attempted to commit suicide. The mother’s witty reluctance to remember the cause of her act («I swallowed so many pills that they erased my memory of it») arouses curiosity. What follows quickly confirms the suspicion that the event did not come out of the blue as it first seems.
Valérie Declef-Cros abandoned her promising career as a make-up artist shortly after giving birth to her two children. She proves to be the true master of appearances. Not only she instantly conquered viewers’ sympathies. She was also able to hide her true state of mind and please the expectations of her filming husband – as if she would seize the only occasion left to her and apply her professional skills to perform as a mother and wife in his home movies. Up to the «scene at the refrigerator», as family members refer to the moment when she declares that she’s had enough. But Faustine Cros lets the viewers gradually become aware of her mother’s troubles. Her documentary is a sensitive and sympathetic portrait of the outstanding personality of her mother. But it is also a unique and unprecedented portrayal of the destructive impact of the daily routine of motherly care.
What follows quickly confirms the suspicion that the event did not come out of the blue as it first seems.
Family movies are an important territory of the social game of appearances. Because they were made by people without filmmaking skills, they appear to be rough and unscripted as real life and bear the mark of authenticity. But on the other hand, amateur films could only achieve social acceptance due to their particular role in enforcing the existing relations. Family movies, for example, enforce gender roles, an aspect explored by Wim Wenders in his anthological Paris, Texas (1984), a road movie in which Travis (Harry Dean Stanton) finds his escaped wife Jane (Nastassja Kinski) working in a peep show. He sets on this quest after watching, with their son, the home movies portraying them as a «happy family» in their first years together. In the documentary by Faustine Cros, this conservational role of family movies is even more defined. Because of the mother’s efforts to perform her part, but even more because of the father, who, himself a film director, is convinced that by making family movies, he can fix his family. He was filming his wife with the kids, he explains, to help her see the beauty of the life she found so hard to endure. To stop her from seeing only the seamy side and make her see the bright side of life.
This belief is supported by a long tradition of perceiving the image of a mother with a child as an embodiment of beauty and harmony. From several paintings of the Madonna and Child by Raphael in the Renaissance to Mother and Child by Klimt in Art Nouveau, this was one of the most common motifs in western paintings. Yet, a mother with her child in her arms was a very rare site in real life: mothers in wealthy families had nursing mothers and nannies to care for their kids, while mothers in poor families could not afford to spend time with their kids as they had to work. The relations between mothers and children were, and are to this day, much more complex and troubled, as more contemporary female authors started to show, among the first Dorothea Lange in her iconic photograph of a Migrant Mother (1936). Why, then, such idealised imaging of a mother with a child throughout modern European history? Contemporary studies show that the reason might be the economic role of motherly love. Like the love of a wife for her husband, the love of a mother for her child justified the work that the loving women, in the name of love, have been performing for free. Similarly to the free labour of slaves and looted raw materials in the colonies, the free labour of wives and mothers in modern Europe is gradually being recognised as the true, but by now hidden source of capitalism’s success.
In this respect, too, the film by Faustine Cros is outstandingly precise. Her mother stayed at home because she could not find work that would give her time to care for her kids. Her dissatisfaction started to show in the film when she had to use her husband’s credit card. The problem is not that she would lack love for her children but that her motherly love itself couldn’t pay off her efforts. The demand for emotional labour is growing in contemporary societies, and this film is a reminder that we should not forget the pains of those performing it.