Chris Knipp Writing: Movies, Politics, Art

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PostPosted: Sat Jul 30, 2005 11:52 pm 
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Sunshine and incest don't mix

Pierre, an adolescent of seventeen, adores and idolizes his mother. Unwilling and unable to be loved for something she isn't she tells Pierre what she's really like: a woman who was raped by her husband at a very early age for whom immorality has since become an addiction. Pierre is undeterred by this and upon the sudden death of his father demands to be initiated into debauchery. He's ready to go all the way in games that will become more and more dangerous. As attracted to him as to the addictive games, his mother is unable to refuse. This is the basic premise of Honoré’s film.

When you have the formidable Isabelle Huppert as the mother and the striking and bold young actor Louis Garrel as the son, this becomes something fans of French cinema won't want to miss -- though according to the rules of American distribution they'll have to if they aren't eighteen or over.

It will help to know several things: that Ma Mère is a faithful adaptation of the posthumous novel by Georges Bataille, who died in 1962; that Bataille considered the priesthood but had a "furious drive to violate all taboos" and said the brothels of Paris were his true churches; that he admired Nietsche; that he was scorned by Sartre and his contemporaries but posthumously was a very significant influence on Foucault, Derida, and others.

Thus from the French point of view, the film arrives with a pretty formidable cultural heritage. Taking on a literary and philosophical big guy, the young director attracts attention and assumes big risks -- in particular, those of becoming salacious, ridiculous, or grandiloquent; of reducing a fanciful verbal construct to a sequence of all too fleshy scenes. Given the theme, even if he succeeds, the film isn't necessarily going to be pleasant to watch.

The blasphemy and shock value of a movie like this depends on a Catholic context that many of us, myself included, don't have. Times have changed since 1962, and even since the recent death of Derida. In the post-modern twenty-first century, as Steven Shaviro recently wrote in ArtForum, "We live in a time in which transgression has lost its sting, when it has become trivial, boring, and irrelevant. Bataille's giddy gaze into the abyss no longer inspires exhilaration or dread."

We could imagine two such splendid-looking people as Isabelle Huppert and Louis Garrel, living on a sun-kissed island off the coast of Spain, in a house with a big swimming pool with two adoring servants and all sorts of fun-seeking foreign tourists and lascivious spas near at hand, living the wildest sort of life and even falling into an incestuous love affair. But that isn't really what happens, and I'm not entirely clear what does. If you haven't read the book (and I haven't) some of the sequences won't make much sense. Huppert's character seems to be in an approach-avoidance pattern with Pierre. She teases him, withdraws, but introduces him to pretty partners in her debauchery. There's masturbation, self-mutilation, sado-masochistic rituals. There's strenuous -- but not fun -- lovemaking, but not much love. This is like Pasolini's Salo with more sunshine and fewer people. And it happens last year.

The settings (and most of the people) are beautiful, but the movie feels inconsistent in style and sometimes is made visually ugly -- with jerky handheld camera work and lighting so poor you can't quite see the nastiness that's transpiring. After The Dreamers and this, I'd like to see Louis Garrel in a film where he does not masturbate on-screen (here he does it multiple times). Though once again Huppert has justified the adjective "fearless," as in Haneke's Time of the Wolf it's not clear her special talents -- her elegance, polish, and hauteur -- are entirely necessary to the part she's playing. As for Garrel, he seems an exhibitionist, which takes some of the edge off his explorations: it isn't clear whether he's pushing himself to the limits, or just indulging a natural impulse to show off. The film's look and mood shift inexplicably from sequence to sequence, with some elements of claustrophobia, other times of sunny openness; and a voice-over by Pierre popping up unexpectedly toward the end. Everything is glossy and expensive, but that doesn't constitute a style.

Shaviro points out in his ArtForum article that the movie "replaces the original's pseudo-aristocratic fin de siècle ambiance with a contemporary setting in the bourgeois vacation paradise of the Canary Islands," and in this new setting Huppert's "sexual initiation of her son" (misleading phrase though, since she's more observer and facilitator than seducer) fits in so "seamlessly" with the island's "omnisexual discos and nude sunbathing" that it loses the shock value it had in the original. And the mother's finale after "sexual union" (really just masturbation in bed together) with her son seems more like guilt than going out with a bang as Bataille probably meant it to be. In short: everything is the same, and everything is different.

All this led the film to get a rather mixed reception in France and is making it an absolute critical disaster in the US where people don't know or care about the cultural context. For me, it's a disappointment, not because it fails as an adaptation, but because it fails as a film. The subject matter was probably a dubious choice to begin with -- this kind of novel doesn't adapt well; but given the participants, the disappointment's big-time.

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