Review: ‘My Mother’s Letters’

Hot Docs 2018

5 mins read

My Mother’s Letters
(Canada, 86 min.)
Dir. Serge Giguère
Programme: Canadian Spectrum (Toronto Premiere)


The members of the Giguère family invite audiences to enter their homes and hearts in the wonderful documentary My Mother’s Letters. Director Serge Giguère (Finding Macpherson) crafts a love letter to the women who raise us.

This offbeat and whimsically sweet film explores 120 letters written by Giguère’s mother, Antoinette, to her son, Henri. The eldest of 16 children, Henri received a richly chronicled family history from his mother, who excitedly updated her son on the family blossoming at home in Arthabasca, Quebec, as he pursued the priesthood at a seminary in Ottawa, Ontario. Decades after Antoinette’s death, her filmmaker son Serge (child number 15) examines these letters and finds a fuller family portrait than the one he observed during his youth. It’s an affectionate and touching film.

Giguère interviews his surviving siblings who recall their (mostly) fond memories growing up in Antoinette’s care. Despite having a whopping 16 children over 22 years (Mr. and Mrs. Giguère were obviously very Catholic), few of the siblings describe life in an overcrowded household. Times were different then and the Giguère home was a revolving door of children with one being born just as another was leaving home for work or marriage.

The director’s voice is prominent in the film as narrates and answers questions posed by his daughter, Katherine. Giguère speaks of his mother more respectfully than lovingly as he remembers key episodes that shaped his youth, like the memory of being alone in hospital, which lit the creative sparks that inspired him to pursue filmmaking. At the same time, he realizes that his perceived abandonment at the hospital was evidence of Antoinette’s struggles, for she couldn’t afford the price of a hotel in the neighboring town where her son was hospitalized. By revisiting Antoinette’s words and experiences, Giguère appreciates that a parent’s love can manifest itself through constant work and devotion to children, rather than through embraces and kisses.

Antoinette’s letters to Henri say much about her character. She speaks fondly of her children, even the ones who disappointed her with reckless spending and bad behaviour, but she holds great pride knowing her eldest son will be a priest. She puts on a brave face and her letters wear a tired but happy smile as she recalls long days spent canning chickens, sewing clothes, cleaning rooms, and raising kids. Her children speak with equal doses of respect and affection as they remember Antoinette’s dogged work ethic and devotion to her family.

Her feet didn’t rest often, and Giguère’s portrait of his mother conveys the hardship of the working class in rural Quebec, while interviews with his siblings illustrate the difficult times in which Antoinette raised her family. Particularly tragic is an episode in which they remember the night that Antoinette lost two of her children and prayed to God that he take the baby inside her, rather than the third child feverishly sick in bed. There are many tears in the film, but they’re outweighed by fond gestures and words of love.

Giguère brings his mother’s letters to life through a beautiful collage of images and artifacts. My Mother’s Letters playfully creates impressions of the Quebecois matriarch as Giguère stages readings in silhouette while gigantic cutouts of family photos ensure that all members of the clan, living or dead, appear in the film. Found relics like his father’s electric razor and an old telephone—the family’s first!—recreate aspects of the busy home and tell stories of their own as Giguère reads the objects with his hands. Through letters, memories, photographs, home movies, and discarded knick-knacks, Giguère finds countless sentimental souvenirs that tell his family’s story. This intimate and artfully composed family portrait conveys an outpouring of love and emotions.

Pat Mullen is the publisher of POV Magazine. He holds a Master’s in Film Studies from Carleton University where his research focused on adaptation and Canadian cinema. Pat has also contributed to outlets including The Canadian Encyclopedia, Paste, That Shelf, Sharp, Xtra, and Complex. He is the vice president of the Toronto Film Critics Association and an international voter for the Golden Globe Awards.

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