Tuesday, June 19, 2007

Ma mère

Ma mère (My Mother, Christophe Honoré, 2004)
There are shocking things depicted in Ma mère – things a human being should never be subjected to. A parent’s role is to protect, nurture, empower and instil a sense of responsibility in his or her child. What if a parent subjects his or her child to the very worst type of activities that responsible parents aspire to protect their children from? That’s the exploration of this film, loosely adapted from an unfinished novel by Georges Bataille.

I sometimes find a number of challenges when writing about serious films like Christophe Honoré’s Ma mère. The film is itself challenging to audiences, of a level similar to Ôdishon (Audition, Takashe Miikie, 1999) or Gaspar Noé’s Irréversible, though this film is without the violent horror of those films. A theme of transgression is similar to The King (James Marsh, 2005), but is much more graphic and confronting than Marsh’s excellent film. It goes beyond transgression to calculated moral corruption of the innocent.

I’d go so far as to say that Ma mère is the most challenging film I’ve seen with an OFLC classification. With the regrettable demise of the Lumiere Cinema (the only Melbourne cinema to screen both Audition and Irréversible), I doubt whether any other local cinema would ever touch a film like this.

The challenge in writing about a film like this is understanding the director’s intention. Having seen Honoré’s Dans Paris (Inside Paris, 2006) at this year’s French Film Festival, I can see that he is not averse to bleak and serious family drama. Neither of these two films are light fare at all (though the more recent film did show signs of a little frivolity). Incidentally, Louis Garrel had major roles in both these films and excels in brooding, understated roles – he has good screen presence.

Is Honoré deliberately aiming to shock, like the above-mentioned films, or say Eli Roth’s Hostel and Hostel 2? I asked myself a similar question after seeing Noé’s Irréversible. I still don’t have a clear answer. Firstly, Ma mère is no pop culture porno snuff film (as The Age’s Jim Schembri has recently pretty much called Hostel 2). This film is played straight. The characters are all very real, and the acting is understated.

Honoré is not pulling any punches and must be aware of the capacity of the film to shock. I think the level of realism and the non-erotic nature of the sex and nudity is indicative of a film that is serious about its artistic integrity above commercial appeal. This must be taken as a serious film and I don’t find it exploitative.

The horror of Honoré’s film is not sexual but of an emotional and psychological nature – how much damage one parent can inflict upon a child. One of the most skilful aspects of the film that I liked so much is the subtle psychological depictions that are not explained. We don’t necessarily understand the motivations of the characters, yet they ring true and one can believe in them.

The use of music is very poignant in the film. Both opening and closing credits are without music or sound. Like Joachim Lafosse’s Nue Propriété (Private Property, 2006, in which Huppert also starred) this has a sobering effect, conveying to the audience that this is a serious film that is not going to prop us up with feel-good scenarios. And it doesn’t.

In the opening sequence, Héléne (Isabelle Huppert) leaves a car at night in what seems like one questionable scenario and into another. She meets up with a man and they engage in an apparently psychologically and mutually abusive interaction – it turns out they are in some kind of relationship (but I won't go into details). Again, as in Private Property, Huppert is used in a restrained manner. Her screen presence could easily have dominated the film, but Honoré deftly pulls her out of frame and allows Garrel’s performance to quietly sizzle on screen.

The film takes its time unfolding the relationships and the locale (The Canary Islands); some things are never explained. The location selection was excellent – the scenes are varied, interesting and beautiful without ever falling into any postcard cliché.

In spite of the aesthetics, like Once Were Warriors, this is not a film one enjoys in the traditional sense. With both these films, I came out of the cinema a little stunned, physically affected by the experience. It’s not a film for everyone, not even for many cinephiles. But if you like challenging cinema - and I find there is always a shortage - this is must-see.

Ma mère is a bold film and kudos to all the participants, particularly the director and the actors for portraying the characters in what must have been a very challenging effort. And kudos to ACMI for being bold enough to open the Focus on Isabelle Huppert with such a controversial film. I would like to see more of this kind of programming by Melbourne’s pre-eminent centre for cinephiles.

Ma mère opens ACMI's Focus on Isabelle Huppert on June 29. Twenty films will be screened as part of the retrospective which finishes on July 10. All Melbourne screening times.

Ma mère screenings:
  • Melbourne: ACMI, Fri 29 June, 7pm
  • Sydney: not screening - unfortunately you guys miss out on this gem
  • Brisbane: QGMO, Fri 27 July, 6pm; Wed 1 August, 6pm


Greg Coldicutt said...

Your dates in:
"Ma mère opens ACMI's Focus on Isabelle Huppert on July 29. Twenty films will be screened as part of the retrospective which finishes on August 10."
are a month late: should be June 29 and July 10.

Paul Martin said...

Ah, sleep deprivation, it's a wonderful thing! All fixed and thanks for pointing that out, Greg.

The Printed Image said...

Very considered review, I also found it the most confronting film I have seen since Irreversible however I did not find it as disturbing - due to the lack of violence.

I did not find it as emotionally bereft and cruel as the Australian film Jindabyne for example. And I thought the philosophical underpinnings were very clear. Bataille (whose unfinished novel the film was based on) fits firmly into the french literary tradition of transgression. I also appreciated seeing the voracious side of female desire writ large and let's not even go near the Freudian/Oedipal thing!

Paul Martin said...

Thanks for your comment, TPI. I find it fascinating how people come away from a common experience with different impressions. Much of this is based on our own experiences and perspectives. Like many, I'm prone to being very emotionally affected by a film if it absorbs me (and this one certainly did). I have never seen this kind of sexual abuse in real life but I have seen much emotional abuse that enabled me to connect the film with some of my own life experiences. So my experience of the film was very personal. When I watched it, my primary shock was from the perspective of a parent seeing how this child is being corrupted and whose life is potentially being destroyed by the actions or his parent.

Personally, I can't see any parallel with Jindabyne, but am happy to have a connection pointed out.

Irreversible and Me mere are both shocking, and they're both French. Other than that they are very different. Yes, the violence in Noe's film was absolutely disturbing, though the film ended much warmer. Ma mere starts off elusive and the depravity grows and grows. What the mother does at the end is reminiscent of the quick and brutal shock in Haneke's Hidden. Yet there's still more to come, and it is just as unexpected.