In his pioneering study “Suicide,” the late French anthropologist Emile Durkheim invented a concept to describe the social situation at the center of “Ma Mere,” Christophe Honore’s film adaptation of Georges Bataille’s novel. He called it anomie, a state of normlessness in which there is chaos and or no rules to guide human behavior, including sexuality.
Imagine that youre a virginal teenager and that your mother is watching you having sex with a woman for the first time. That’s one of central, shocking concerns of Ma Mere. It’s hard to think of any other actress but Isabelle Huppert, arguably the most accomplished French thespian of her generation, to pull off such a tricky and demanding role role–without a blink or any expressed emotion.
Unbridled individualism and unrestrained sexual freedom invariably leads to deviance and abuse, both of which can take many forms. Centering on a bizarre mother-son relationship, “Ma Mere,” which could have been called “Leap into Void,” concerns moral breakdown at its most perverse and extreme.
The 17-year-old Pierre (Louis Garrel) is at age when personal and sexual choices are too random and arbitrary to bear meaning. Utterly confused and without guidance, he doesn’t know where he’s going, what he wants, why his best friend cannot be his lover, and so on.
Pierre’s mother, Helene (Isabelle Huppert), seems to be experiencing arrested development or at least emotional numbness. As later becomes clear, she has remained the hedonistic wild child of her youth, refusing any form of discipline and celebrating sensuality as an expression of complete independence. For Helene, regulations are like prison, unnecessary and imposed from the outside. With lots of free time to dispose, she explores her sexuality with women, such as Rea (Joana Preiss) and Hansi (Emma de Caunes), and men too, some of who are willing pay for the privilege to be humiliated and abused.
The film is set in a Mediterranean resort island, where Helene has a villa overlooking the sea. Pierre comes over for the holidays and hangs about in a typically adolescent passive and brooding manner. He is wondering around the isolated villa as if hoping that sheer boredom will lead to personal revelation, an insight for what direction to assume.
A young mother, in both biological age and spirit, Helene displays the uninhibited candor of a free spirit, open to every sexual experience. She comes up with a scheme for Rea to sexually initiate Pierre, but she comes on too strong when he’s drunk in the street early one morning. In contrast, the other woman, Hansi, is gentler and subtler in her seduction of the beautiful boy, who doesn’t know whether he’s gay, sleep around with women, or really wants to sleep with his mother. He disregards Helene’s warning, that “desire reduces us to weakness,” and begins to experiment himself with all kinds of sexual games and psychological escapades.
It’s hard to imagine any film but French exploring such issues frankly. Indeed, despite its weaknesses, “Ma Mere” captures the orgiastic nature of a bohemian life that has no rules, nor morality, no guilt, and no shame. Writer-director Christophe Honore is less concerned with showing decadence in its modern context as in telling Pierre’s search for identity and meaning.
Slapped with NC-17 rating, the film is daring and even shocking. And on the surface it might appear that the obsession with sex is done for sensationalistic reasons, to titillate audiences with a candid look into the forbidden. I realize that the film will be dismissed by some critics along these lines, though I have no doubts that deep down, Honore is concerned with the more serous and grave issues of maternal love, loss, fear and isolation.
Unfortunately, it takes too long for the movie to reach its poignancy, and, despite sexual candidness, long stretches of narrative are not particularly exciting to watch. Cold and detached, with several scenes that feel like case studies of clinical psychology, “Ma Mere” might alienate viewers seeking emotional involvement with narrative and characters.
The performances are exceptional, particularly by Garrel , better known for his role as the twin brother in Bertolucci’s “The Dreamers,” and Huppert. With this film, Huppert again proves that her range is limitless and that she is one of most daring and fearless actresses working in today’s cinema.