Christophe Honoré directs the screen version of Georges Bataille’s controversial novel, starring Isabelle Huppert as a depraved mother who leads her 17 year-old son, Louis Garrel, into a life of perversity and debauchery.
Ma Mère is based on a short unfinished novel by the controversial French author Georges Bataille, published posthumously in 1973. It’s a poetic yet lurid account of perversity and the ambiguous Oedipal relationship between a sexually depraved mother and her 17 year-old son. Operating very much in the realm of the senses (and yes, the Nagisa Oshima film does come to mind while watching this), this is perfect material for French writer Christophe Honoré, whose debut film 17 Fois Cécile Cassard successfully staked out similar territory.
To keep him away from the corrupting influence of his mother Hélène (Isabelle Huppert) and the troubled relationship that exists between her and his father, Pierre (Louis Garrel) has been raised away from both of them by his grandmother. Pierre however feels a natural bond with his mother and is happy when his father takes him on holiday to visit her on a Spanish tourist resort in the Canary Islands. His father however has an accident while returning home and Pierre is left alone with his mother. Resolving not to play up to the idealised image Pierre has of her, Hélène reveals that she is a promiscuous woman and hardened drinker with no sense of shame or self-respect. She introduces the young man to one of her acquaintances Rea, who initiates the young man into their wild and debauched lifestyle. Hélène however senses the unhealthy attraction her son has for his mother, and even though she flirts with the taboo herself, she feels he needs to be exposed to a different kind of woman and leaves him in the hands of Hansi (Emma de Caunnes), but the damage that has already been done leads both mother and son into deeper, darker and more dangerous perversities as Pierre rejects the notion of a normal sexual relationship – symbolised by his dismissal of the housekeeper Marthe and the gardener, Robert – for the darker twisted oedipal impulses and the need for abasement and degradation that he believes will lead him to a religious transcendent state.
I’ve read the short Bataille novel that this film is based on, though I don’t think I ever finished it, finding it obscure and difficult to read. I suspect that an early departure before the end is similarly likely to be the case with many people who watch the film version – and if anyone is disturbed by the material here early on I would certainly recommend an early exit strategy before the final disturbing scenes of the film’s conclusion. Bearing in mind that the film is meant to be challenging and difficult, it is treated as well as can be expected by the director, Christophe Honoré. Moving the location of the film to Gran Canaria is partly effective in that it places the intense insular relationships into a similar remote island far from the normal everyday activity of ordinary people. On the other hand it makes it a little too easy to relate the activities of Hélène and Pierre to the drunken exploits of hedonistic tourist pleasure seekers, rather than the perversity of normal human and family relationships it really seeks to subvert and reject.
Although Ma Mère inhabits the same fevered sensuality of Honoré’s previous film 17 Fois Cécile Cassard, it has surprisingly less of the fluid surrealism of that film which might have worked equally as well here, settling for a more gritty, grainy treatment, the camera sometimes shaking and zooming in faux-documentary style. Louis Garrel is fine as Pierre – much better than he was in Bertolucci’s The Dreamers – although he similarly has little to work with here and would be well advised to find a film that allows him to keep his clothes on for at least some of the running time if he doesn’t want to get continually typecast in obscure, arty, nude films. However neither Garrel nor Huppert, who is always willing to take on challenging roles (The Piano Teacher), can bring any psychological depth to material that is so far removed from the normal human experience of most people. Honoré tries to bridge this gulf between the viewer and the characters with the modern day holiday island setting and a harsh realist depiction, but unravelling Bataille’s sulphurous mélange of sex, religion and sadomasochism proves too difficult and it all comes across on the screen as rather dull and ridiculous.
DVDMa Mère is released on DVD in the UK by Revolver Entertainment. The PAL DVD is encoded for Region 2.
VideoThe image is very grainy, but perhaps intentionally so. Much of the film looks rather hazy, with flat, warmly saturated colour tones, but other scenes show good detail and clarity, despite appearing a little on the soft side. This does seem to be stylistic and it’s certainly in keeping with the tone of the film, but there are some minor transfer problems – cross colouration and blockiness in backgrounds, with some colour bleed on edges. Generally though the film looks fine and the print, transferred anamorphically at 1.78:1, only has a few white dust spots and marks. It’s certainly not perfect, but it’s a more than acceptable presentation.
AudioThe audio is presented in Dolby Digital 2.0 and is also more than adequate without ever being exceptional. The dialogue remains clear and is mixed well against the demands of the soundtrack and the music score (a lot of use of a choral arrangement of Barber’s Adagio for Strings).
SubtitlesEnglish subtitles are fixed on the transfer and cannot be removed. They are rather large and intrusive on the film.
ExtrasThere are no extra features on the DVD.
OverallAdapting George Bataille for the screen was always going to be a challenge and tackling the notorious ‘Ma Mère’ was certainly never going to be easy. Christophe Honoré does as well as can be expected with material that is difficult and obscure, but it’s not exactly pleasant to watch something that was never pleasant to read in the first place. It’s a brave attempt to film the unwatchable, but this type of material has been done before and much better in Nagisa Oshima’s The Realm of The Senses and in Claire Denis’ Trouble Every Day. Like those films however, this is strong and potentially offensive material and will split audiences as to whether it has anything meaningful to say about darker taboo impulses and desires that exist within each of us or is it merely an exploitative film about two twisted, damaged characters. I don’t think Ma Mère is exploitative, nor is it overly explicit, but I don’t think it makes its case terribly effectively either. Revolver’s barebones DVD is by no means of exceptional quality, but it comes with a decent anamorphic transfer that is certainly more than acceptable.
It’s the end, but the moment has been prepared for…
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