Oedipal romance is "in" this spring, says Judge Jesse Ataide.
Intellectual sex, or simple depravity? You decide.
Reviled by just about everybody upon its release, I found a lot to admire in Christophe Honoré's controversial film, which is essentially 2005's equivalent to Bernardo Bertolucci's The Dreamers. The two films actually have a lot in common: not only does Louis Garrel star in both films, but there's a similar preoccupation with incestuous relationships and subversive sexual behavior, and perhaps most importantly, both films received the kiss-of-death NC-17 rating by the MCAA upon its release in American movie theaters.
Facts of the Case
Ma Mére is the story of a beautiful woman and self-described "bitch" (Isabelle Huppert, I Heart Huckabees) who introduces her teenage son (Louis Garrel) to a lifestyle of destructive sexual behavior (ranging from exhibitionist sex to S&M) that threatens to shatter both of their lives.
Yes, there's lots and lots of nudity in Ma Mére featuring both sexes, and just as much sex—some of it arousing, most of it deeply disturbing. For a number of viewers, I imagine that these elements are the film's main selling points. But really, there's a lot of other things going on behind Ma Mére's sexually charged surface.
Based on an unfinished novella of the same name by French novelist and philosopher Georges Bataille, his apparent preoccupation with how the forces of sex, death and the obscene manipulate the individual certainly show up over the course of this film. It's certainly a revolting film on many levels, but it manages to be provocative at the same time—always asking the viewer to consider what is going on psychologically with these characters, and at what point the line between appropriate and inappropriate sexual behavior is blurred beyond recognition. There's also a constant, underlying examination of the ties between sex and religion—Garrel's character seems to be attempting to find the connection between his religious devotion and his sexual behavior, which is subtly eluded to with the title (the blurring of the roles of earthly and the heavenly mother), among other things. The ethereal strains of Barber's Adiago for Strings further highlights the odd religious dynamics at work in this film.
There's probably no other actress working right now who could have pulled off the role of Héléne, la mére of the title, besides Isabelle Huppert (though I can't help but think how interesting it would have been to see Catherine Deneuve return to Belle de Jour territory after all these years). Probably the most interesting actress (along with Charlotte Rampling) currently working on an international level, this is certainly one the most out-there roles in a filmography filled with out-there performances. In the hands of another actress, Héléne would have been a rather irredeemable character, but Huppert brings the role an underlying intensity and intelligence so that it's basically impossible not be fascinated rather than disgusted with her character. And this is the second major role in a row where Louis Garrell is required to get naked—a lot. I can't help but be fascinated by his performances in both The Dreamers and this film, because on one hand he's such an intensely physical actor, but at the same time there's an undeniable high level of intelligence involved in his acting. I've read an article in which he is likened to a young Jean-Pierre Léaud (The 400 Blows), and I think it's an apt comparison. It'll be interesting to see what he does in the future.
But the revelatory performance comes from Emma de Caunes, an exquisite young actress I had never heard of before. Functioning as the sole character who is both involved with the general debauchery while always seeming to observe it as an outsider, she manages to seem sweet while conveying the dark side of the character at the same time. The only means of redemption for Garrel's character through the offer of true love, she does wonders with what could have been a very flat role—it's a positively luminous performance. She will be appearing in Michel Gondry's next film The Science of Sleep—and I hope she has a major role.
If anything, the technical elements of this film are worth note. Shot on location on the Canary Islands, it's a film full of warm sunshine, crystal blue water and golden skin (which serves as an interesting counterpoint to the dark content of the film), and the use of sand dunes is reminiscent of Michelangelo Antonioni in The Passanger mode. The editing and camera work is also top-notch, resulting in a visually ravishing film.
Ma Mére is being released in the United States by TLA Releasing, and it's overall a very nice package. The 1:85:1 anamorphic widescreen picture at times has a grainy look to it, especially during scenes shot at night. But overall, it's an attractive picture. The Dolby Digital 2.0 surround audio track is likewise serviceable; optional English subtitles are included.
The several extras included on this disc are quality ones: a five minute alternate ending (with footage incorporated into other parts of the finished film), a deleted scene and a theatrical trailer. But the most valuable features are interviews with director Christophe Honoré and star Emma de Caunes at London's Ciné Lumiére. De Caunes sticks mostly to explaining her approach to her character, but Honoré discusses everything from why he chose to adapt Bataille's novel to his views on the depiction of sex on film. It's an informative 15-minute interview, demonstrating that Honoré was indeed going for much more in his film than simply arousing the audience.
For all the things that I liked about the film, it's still a failure somehow. It seems to aspire to be a Claire Denis film—to attain that same visceral depth and vibrancy, that almost physical intensity that saturates her films (I can hardly begin to imagine the things she would do with this material). But even though Ma Mére does ultimately fail—fail to transcend the titillation factor and become the intellectual film it aspires to be—it's never anything less than interesting.
While admitting that this isn't a film for everyone, the court finds it not guilty.
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Scales of Justice
Studio: TLA Releasing
• Alternate Ending
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