It probably didn’t help that prior to watching Ma mère I had only recently revisited Michael Haneke’s absolutely brilliant The Piano Teacher, another film starring Isabelle Huppert as a masochistic figure. But for as much as I am willing to defend Isabelle Huppert in anything, there’s absolutely nothing about Ma mère that can even make this experience anything close to worthwhile. Rather instead, there was a part of my experience with The Piano Teacher coming back to me, and not in a good way, because the way in which it unfolded did make me feel sick to my stomach without any real thought put behind what came around. As I try to find even anything that’s really worth defending about this film, I’m stumped because even Huppert, usually a saving grace, offered very little in her presence.
Based on the controversial posthumous novel of the same name by Georges Bataille which was also controversial in its own grounds, Ma mère tells the story of an incestuous relationship between a 17-year-old boy and his 43-year-old mother. On one ground this is a subject that could become a whole lot more fascinating on the grounds that it was already rather risky subject matter on the end of its leading star Isabelle Huppert, but it doesn’t go beyond that ground. It shocks me that Huppert would have wanted to take part in such a film not only on the count that she had taken part in The Piano Teacher a few years prior but because it reeks of the worst tendencies I find with the New French Extremity movement and ultimately has nothing to say by the time it finishes off. But that’s what I kept thinking of when I watched Ma mère, The Piano Teacher by way of New French Extremity.
I do not wish to dismiss New French Extremity in its entirety because some wonderful films have indeed come out of the movement going from Gaspar Noé’s Irreversible or Olivier Assayas’s Demonlover, but Ma mère if anything is a perfect example of everything that bores me about such films. They have a way of going with obscene content but there’s a point to which they push beyond limitations it becomes their substance in the worst possible manner. On the surface it tells a story that seems defined by the extremes to which it is interested in presenting but deep down there’s almost nothing to take out from the experience of watching such films and all that they leave behind is nothing more than a bad taste in the mouth. My best guess was that screenwriter-director Christopher Honoré must have wanted to repulse his viewers through what they see in Ma mère and on that ground he most certainly has succeeded but there was also another to where I’m wondering what is it that he wishes to say in the meantime.
That having been said, this film’s primary focus is an incestuous relationship that takes place between a mother and her son. I’m not even sure what Honoré would have wanted to say about his characters from showing us their indefensible actions but at the same time, it’s not like there was any reason to care for the sorts of circumstances which are being put on display here. It’s one wrong that comes on Ma mère‘s end that it was purely a shocking film that does such only for the sake of achieving that value, and then it’s another to present extremely uninteresting shock because there’s absolutely no reason to grasp onto what’s going on. I was always unsure where the film would end up going from one shocking scene to the next considering the amount of times it just meanders from one point to the other – signifying nothing.
For as much as I love Isabelle Huppert, the only impression that I had received from watching her in here was never one that rang any sort of an impact, the least I’d ever expect from an actress with a rare talent that she carries. She still carries the look established by what she had left behind in The Piano Teacher, but the way in which her character is written tells otherwise – for she’s a repulsive figure who took part in such an act, but without any reason to be the way that she is. Her son is played by Louis Garrel, who appeared in The Dreamers prior to this, in another equally bland leading role as her son. They don’t have many distinctive traits to set oneself apart but soon enough I just came to the conclusion I just didn’t care what Honoré wanted to say about their actions if he really had anything to pull from them; for it never grabbed my interest at all.
“Pretentious” is a word I despise using because of how it shows an evident lack of critical thinking, and it’s the last thing I’d want to use to describe even some of the absolute worst films I’ve seen. What I can say about Ma mère though, is that in the pride it takes of what it shows on the screen, I was feeling disgusted, angered, and just bored all throughout. Somehow, even Isabelle Huppert’s presence couldn’t save the film which was something that I never thought was possible given the shallowness of a miserable experience this was. For my first Christopher Honoré film, I certainly don’t find myself urging to watch more because if there was anything I felt when watching Ma mère, it was just everything that I hated about New French Extremity put into one. Just give me Michael Haneke’s The Piano Teacher once again.
Watch the trailer right here.
All images via Gemini Films.
Directed by Christopher Honoré
Screenplay by Christopher Honoré, from the novel by Georges Bataille
Produced by Paulo Branco, Bernard-Henri Lévy
Starring Isabelle Huppert, Louis Garrel, Emma de Caunes
Release Year: 2004
Running Time: 110 minutes