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
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
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