Ma mère (2004) Poster


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The Oedipus Complex with Variations from Novelist Georges Bataille
gradyharp27 October 2005
'Ma mère' is a film on the edge. Director Christophe Honoré (who gave us the little jewel 'Closer to Leo') has adapted a tough book by Georges Bataille that explores incest, sadomasochism, love, family dysfunction, and nebulous moral values of conflicted adolescents caught in the web of sexual investigation. It is filled with difficult scenes and ideas and certainly is not a film for the faint of heart or spirit, but at the same time it is a brave film depicting the dissociative state of sexual mind to which we've come after the influences of such thinkers as Bataille, Foucault, Derida, Gide, and others. Christophe Honoré captures an impossible story extremely well on the screen! 17-year-old Pierre (Louis Garrel of 'The Dreamers') is a spiritually challenged adolescent home from his Catholic school to be with his mother Hélène (Isabelle Huppert) whom he idolizes and loves and see his father (Philippe Duclos) who is distant in every sense. Hélène finds it necessary to inform Pierre of her background (her husband raped her when she was very young, causing such anguish that she has become addicted to a life of immorality as a means of escape), a means of warning him of what close association with her could mean. Pierre is blind to all things negative about Hélène and with the news of his father's death, he demands to be included in the wild sexual life of Hélène and her female lover Réa (Joana Preiss). Hélène is sexually attracted to Pierre and elects to include him in her games of voyeurism (watching Pierre during intercourse with Réa, introducing him to the shallow and compulsive Hansi (Emma de Caunes), mutilation, and all forms of debauchery.

The group goes to the sunny islands off Spain where Pierre falls in love with the dangerous Hansi and follows her lead in learning about his mother's strange and dangerous proclivities, sexual acts which include the involvement of young Loulou (Jean-Baptiste Montagut), a young man whom they torture for the sake of sexual satisfaction. All the while that Pierre is being introduced into Hélène's bizarre world he is conflicted by his superego in the form of the Catholic Church: he is seen reciting catechism in the desert surrounded by a silent, nude Greek chorus a la Fellini. Ultimately the 'vacation' is over and Pierre returns home with Hélène and the ultimate incestuous aspect of the Oedipus complex plays out in a completely bizarre and very dark way. To say more would destroy the impact of the ending.

Isabelle Huppert is brilliant as always, her quiet outwardly plain demeanor disguising the profoundly ill soul inside. Likewise Louis Garrel makes the fragile, gullible, needy and severely conflicted Pierre understandable: we may not agree with his choices as he wades through the strange waters of perversion, but we never lose sight of his vulnerability and passionate need to be loved. There is a lot of graphic sex in this film, but this particular story could not be told without it. Christophe Honoré manages this strange tale by letting the story take us into the realm of the unreal and he never for a moment loses our interest.

Even the music scoring is substantive, using Samuel Barber's own setting of his famous 'Adagio for Strings' for the choral 'Agnus Dei', most appropriately heard when Pierre is mentally visiting his spiritual conflicts with his corporal deeds. This is clearly not a film for everyone, but for those who admire the French cinema history of uncovering strange tales, this is a fine example. In French with English subtitles. Grady Harp
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Sunshine and incest don't mix
Chris Knipp31 July 2005
Warning: Spoilers
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, 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 the people are beautiful, but the movie feels inconsistent in style and sometimes is ugly visually, with distracting hand-held camera work (but only sometimes) and poor lighting (but only at times), so you can't always 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 -- were 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 style and mood of the film seem to shift 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 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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daring, but not cheap
wimbroekaert9 June 2004
As I watched the movie, I felt (probably like many others) somehow shocked by the powerful and explicit images. Yet it can't be said that this is merely done to make a controversial film. The viewer gets a slowly developing picture of the relationship between mother and son, or more correctly of the adaptation of mother's lifestyle by her son. Finally everybody is invited to morally judge the relations, actions and sayings of the main characters. But as most viewers are likely to enjoy the "forbidden" relationships or explicit scenes, who are we to give criticism? This film puts a whole new dimension in the concept of what is normal, allowed or understood as morally acceptable. It's sometimes almost revolting, and yet when you've seen the story-lines that led to these scenes, you may find the actions acceptable (or maybe I've a twisted mind). I would like to call the attention to the beautifully chosen soundtrack and the abrupt ending, which leaves the viewer a little bit disturbed.
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What on earth is the point?
theskylabadventure7 May 2007
Warning: Spoilers
Firstly, let me make it perfectly clear that, unlike 9 out of 10 negative reviews for this atrocity, my objection to the film is not a moral one.

Undoubtedly, you have read dozens of comments about how this is an amoral, pernicious insult to human decency. The crux of this review is to say that this would be to give the film far too much credit.

'Ma Mere' just smacks of this self-conscious effort to be disturbing, to be offensive, to be shocking. It failed to disturb, offend or shock me, for the simple reason that I could not find any reason whatsoever for anything that happened in this film.

In a nutshell, Louis Garrel discovers that his father was a philandering scumbag. Daddy then dies, and little Louis finds out that his mother is basically a hooker. He doesn't really seem the least bit perturbed by this, and happily goes off with Mummy to indulge in the same debauchery as she does. She treats him like s h i t, her "friends" treat him like s h i t, yet - for reasons known only to screenwriter, director and pretentious tw*t extraordinaire Christophe Honore - he still hangs out with them all. What, pray tell, is the point of the film? That the human condition is foulsome, depressing, self-destructive and disgusting? Well, duh!

As I have said, this film seems to go out of its way to be offensive, under the guise of a film that is merely observing offensive people. I watched the film on DVD and was particularly amused by Honore and the formerly lovely Emma de Caunes trying to convince me in a supplementary interview that "none of the sex is gratuitous" and that "every sex scene serves a purpose". Give me a break! 'Last Tango in Paris' (which, for the record, I think is a stunning film) had a point, but this!?! Among my favourite examples of how self-consciously foulsome this dollop is, are the scene where one of Mere's friends sticks her finger up Garrel's arse and then Mummy dutifully sniffs it, and the scene where Emma de Caunes sticks her hand up her "still dripping" womanhood and wipes it onto Garrel's chest.

"Wow! That's, like, so profound", I hear you say. My sentiments precisely.

Beyond this, none of the characters make any sense, least of all our main protagonist. Garrel is treated like crap but still loves (yes, loves) his mother. He fires their servants for *no reason what-so-ever*, he dupes some poor German kid into being hogtied and whipped for *no reason what-so-ever*, he falls in love with Emma de Caunes for *no reason what-so-ever*. It's just completely ludicrous. It's as if a ten year old with a boner wrote the script. This is the kind of film that Beavis & Butthead would enjoy.

I ask you, Honore, who am I supposed to identify with? Failing that, in whom am I supposed to invest any emotional interest? I simply did not give a hoot about anyone in this movie and, thus, could not have cared less about anything that was happening. Didn't they teach you that in film school? I know the French New Wave threw the book out of the window, but surely some of the rules still stand? Apparently not...

I repeat, I have no moral objection to this pile of steaming cinematic turd, but I simply could not find a point to any of it. My wife found it "intensely boring", which I felt was unfair to boredom and intensity.

Indeed, it does not relent form trying to be shocking/poignant long enough for it to get boring. I actually held the faith - right until the final frame, when Garrel falls to the ground beside his mother's coffin and starts masturbating - I held the faith that the point of the past two hours would be revealed. Then the credits rolled.

All this film does that is of any note is to go so far up its own arse that is almost comes off as parody. It's a shame Honore didn't realise that before releasing the film, or we could have been looking at the funniest film since 'Airplane'.

Sadly, instead we are looking at the most pretentious (and I hardly ever use that word) film since someone handed Asia Argento a camera.
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Mamma Mia ...
writers_reign14 September 2004
Warning: Spoilers
... as Frank Sinatra said when he introduced his third wife to his mother. What foul-mouthed Dolly Sinatra would have made of this is anyone's guess. It's just another day at the office for Isabelle Huppert whose apparent fascination with sleaze, dysfunction, kinkiness, etc, has yet it seems, to run its course. I bow to no one in my admiration of Huppert in fact I consider her the finest French screen actress currently working if only a whisker in front of Nathalie Baye, Fanny Ardant, Carole Bouquet, Catherine Deneuve, etc, yet it's becoming increasingly difficult to defend her extreme choices role-wise of the last few years (Deux, The Piano Teacher). This is not to say one wants her to remain the innocent Pomme of the Lacemaker indefinitely but perhaps a tad less of the opposite extreme. Louis Garrel is also at home with incest having starred as Theo, the brother, in Gilbert Adair's rip-off of (oops, sorry, homage TO) Cocteau's 'Les Enfants Terribles', "The Dreamers", not a bad track-record for a twenty one year old. Helmer Christophe Honore also writes children's books which is quite a volte face if anyone asks you. The story of Ma Mere is classically simple. Widowed Huppert lives a life in which degeneration would only be a step upward. Son, Garrel is dysfunctional to say the least but then when your mom encourages you to have sex with her friend and gets to watch what can you do. I guess there are two what the unashamed Porn industry would call 'money' scenes; the first where Huppert holds Garrel in her arms as he masturbates and the second, shortly afterwards when Huppert - having slashed her wrists and bled to death in the scene described above - is taken to the mortuary and Garrel is allowed in to say goodbye and chooses to do so by masturbating again beside his mother's corpse. Maybe this is a masterpiece and I just don't get it.
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A foul excursion into territories that became, after a certain point, comical.
Eric Hayward24 January 2006
I can enjoy sexy French movies as much as the next person. But this movie is simply gross, to the point of being almost comical. Its furthest excesses rival in bawdiness the kinds of high jinks you'd expect to see in a Farrelly Brothers movie, but without the jokes. Quite the opposite, this film is pretty dark. It could have been a brooding, beautifully shot, and deeply literary meditation on the tangled emotions, Freudian and otherwise, that run through families. Especially considering Isabelle Huppert, who I'd think I could enjoy watching do almost anything, maybe even eat a live horse or perform an emergency tracheotomy, her beauty and her abilities being so complex, limitless and profound. But I did have trouble watching her do the things she does here -- where the artfulness present in other parts of the movie is left behind and only absurdity remains. Perhaps I'm just a prude.
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SPOILER ALERT!!!! What Was Ms. Huppert Thinking?
matty0329 May 2005
Warning: Spoilers
It is my opinion that Isabelle Huppert is the finest actress to ever step infront of a camera. Beautiful, unusual, talented beyond reason and able to convey more with a simple look than most actors can communicate in an entire film. In short, she is brilliant. Even when her films lag -- she shines.

Her interest in exploring the darker sides of humanity have created some of the most memorable performances put to the screen. The Piano Teacher shines as her best work thus far.

I am always quite excited whenever one of her films makes it to the states. I was thrilled when I was able to secure a DVD copy of Ma Mere (yes, it was legally obtained!) prior to its release in the states. The film is just bad. From the production values to the editing to the screenplay. The actors are all quite good and do their best with what they are given --- and, that isn't much.

Critics have shaken their fingers at Huppert for "finally going too far" in her exploration of transgressive characters, but I found this film to be more silly and comical than dark and shocking. In addition, Huppert is not even on the screen all that much. Which is really a lucky break for her! This is one of those films which makes me want to ask the film maker, his producers and his actors why they bothered at all.

Tasteless, tacky, slow moving, un-erotic, dull and uncomfortable for all the wrong reasons - this film fails on almost every level other than the performances given by the actors. Being a French film, I do not think it was the intention of the director to create irony by his odd choice of playing "Happy Together" by the Turtles at the film's end when we see the son masturbating next to the dead body of his mother. However, I am hard pressed to think what else could have been meant by this choice. On the DVD there is an interview with this seemingly untalented artist in which he says that he used that selection of music because the mother and son could only be happy when they were together, but this makes no sense given the plot and ultimate outcome.

Interestingly, the DVD also contains an alternate ending which would have been a "better" way to go, in my opinion. Rather telling, a bit of this alternate ending is used in the middle of the film ---- in the context of the mid-point of the film this scene made no sense. This leaves me to think the Honre hadn't a clue as to how he planned on putting this mess together.

Perhaps the reason Huppert made this film was to spend some time on the Cannery Islands -- she would have done better to just take a vacation and should have skipped this film altogether. The choice of updating the novel from which this film is somewhat based to modern times and shifting it to these islands is odd. In fact, much of the film seems to be making a negative statement about tourists and their impact on nature. Fine, but how does this fit into the film? Answer: it doesn't.

Ma Mere should not be dismissed pretentious, perverse and morally off-track. Instead, one can simply call Ma Mere a very bad cinematic mistake. But, why did Isabelle Huppert appear in this waste of good film stock? Sad.
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Daring film still misses the mark
rosscinema6 July 2005
Warning: Spoilers
This is the screen version of Georges Bataille's unfinished novel and after viewing this adaptation one has the feeling that all those involved were just trying to fill in the gaps in the story in this lurid drama. Story is about 17 year old Pierre (Louis Garrel) who comes to visit his parents in the Canaries after being away at boarding school and his father (Philippe Duclos) has purposely kept his son from spending too much time with his mother but unfortunately he dies in an accident shortly after his arrival.


Helene (Isabelle Huppert) wastes no time after her husband's death to initiate her son into her life of debauchery and hedonism and she quickly instructs her girlfriend Rea (Joana Preiss) to have sex with her son in a public place. Pierre has religious convictions and frequently prays when alone but he seems easily drawn into his mothers sordid lifestyle and he falls in love with another one of her playmates. Helene goes out of town for a while but she instructs Hansi (Emma de Caunes) to keep her son company while she's gone and it's during this time that Pierre learns of the sadomasochistic practices that his mother is involved in. When Helene returns her relationship with Pierre turns incestuous and it eventually ends with her performing the ultimate sadomasochistic act on herself with the hope of keeping a self depraving grip on him.

This is only the second film by Christophe Honore and he seems to be fascinated by stories of people who are deeply troubled and have a hard time dealing with certain events that have caused turmoil. The one area of the story that I did find interesting was the role of Garrel as Pierre who is religious and prays and I think the reason that he allowed himself to be so easily brought into his mother's perverse life is so that he could reach a point to where he would be in this self religious transcendent state and actually help him in his faith, but of course the opposite occurred. The main problem I had with this adaptation is that we really really never know where these characters are coming from and why they became who they are. Huppert is one of my favorite actresses of all time and she's fascinating to watch here but she's played these self loathsome characters before (The Piano Player) and this film could have benefited from a more defined role. Still, one has to have respect for a film like this that holds nothing back in terms of graphic nudity and controversial situations and I do wish more filmmakers would be as ambiguous in terms of approaching a project like Honore. The film's intended impact just doesn't come through and that's because of the script's lack of depth but it is a daring attempt and a chance to view the always intoxicating Huppert.
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comparing film to original novel, no spoilers
mad-6910 June 2006
Warning: Spoilers
I enjoyed the film so much I read the book. The book itself is unfinished and has two snippets at the very end that are disconnected from the rest of the work. It must have been very difficult to write a feature-length screenplay from this book. Not only is the book relatively short (200 pages about the size of a standard paperback with relatively large type), but there's very little "action." The book is all from Pierre's point of view, obviously (the title Ma Mère means My Mother), and it's mostly what he thinks about situations. The only characters in the book are the father, Pierre, Hélène, Réa, Hansi, and Loulou. (The grandparents are mentioned, just as they are in the film.) While the book addresses homosexuality, it only looks at the lesbian side of things because in the book Loulou is a woman. Nearly all the book content made it into the film, but there's much of the film that isn't part of the novel.
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Not the worst in French Existentialism
rburson7 June 2007
If you like French existentialist movies (which in this case is also a perverse "coming of age" movie), this is one of the better ones; if not, don't bother. The first half is slow and cumbersome with the scenes more like vignettes to reveal the Son's naiveté, while the Mother remains inaccessible until the very end. While the second half remains cumbersome through choppy editing, it is more interesting with the introduction of Hansi and Loulou. Most people seem to get hung up over the Libertine attitudes portrayed through deviant sexual activities, but what I took away was the idea that the psyche of willing participants, and particularly the young or immature, can be damaged by any emotionally charged experience, be it sexual or religious. The struggle is to rise above it. The one scene of particular interest revealed the blurred distinctions between dominant and submissive personalities (Hansi & Loulou), with the Sadist revealed as a Masochist by the emotional damage they were inflicting on themselves through the physical damage inflicted on someone they cared about. The Sadist/Masochist roles are easily reversed as seen through Loulou's comment when he throws himself in the pool in the deleted scene.
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