Ma mère: A Sexually Charged Film That Fails to Deliver
Official movie poster
A synopsis that involves heavy spoilers
It is impossible to write a complete review of this film without spoiling the ending. The ending is so ridiculous that it absolutely has to be addressed.
The story follows 17-year-old Pierre (Louis Garrel), who is as inspiring as a bag of potatoes, in what is supposed to be a journey of sexual self-discovery but what ends up as a horrid train wreck that will make everyone in the audience feel like they need a shower. Pierre travels to live with his wealthy parents in the Canary Islands. His father promptly kicks the bucket, leaving Pierre alone with his sexually obsessed mother, Hélène (Isabelle Huppert), who leads her son from sexual taboo to sexual taboo in a meandering plot that struggles to hold the viewer's attention. In between these experiences, Hélène continuously spouts some vague nonsense about being a horrible person and that Pierre should accept her for that. Hélène introduces Pierre to Réa (Joana Preiss), who takes Pierre's virginity, at his mother's insistence, on a busy sidewalk. Hélène watches in interest. The trio then participate in an orgy with a couple of other flat, boring characters. This experience, however, hits a little too close to home for Hélène, and she hits the road with Réa, citing the fear that things might escalate with her son as her reason.
After her appearance is criticized by what we assume to be is a john, Hélène says she has lost the urge to have sex. She returns to the Canary Islands and blatantly asks Pierre to sleep with her. He agrees without missing a beat. In a scene that is nearly blacked out, we see Pierre and Hélène participating in some form of sexual act with one another. He cuts her stomach with a razor and begins rooting around in the wound with his finger. While he's then stimulating himself, Hélène takes the razor and slits her own throat in a bizarre and highly unlikely form of suicide.
Pierre goes to see his mother's body in the morgue where it has been placed in some sort of bizarre glass case (perhaps this is a cultural thing, I don't know). Pierre sinks to the floor and begins masturbating furiously. When the attendee lunges at him, Pierre attempts to leap on top of the glass case, shouting, "Mom, I don't want to die!"
A film of loose ends and lost potential
One aspect of the film that is absolutely infuriating is that there are several instances of characters and ideas being introduced that are then never addressed again. For instance, the film opens with Pierre traveling on a plane with his father who is immediately an alluring yet intense presence. It is hinted that he is a violent, angry man, but this revelation goes nowhere, as, within the first fifteen minutes or so, the father is killed in an accident while returning to France. We don't see any of this, mind you. It is told to us, flatly, by Hélène and absorbed, just as flatly, by Pierre. The screenwriter could have saved a heck of a lot of time and convolution by simply beginning after the death of Pierre's father, as his brief appearance and then blasé death add nothing to the movie at all.
Another example involves the brief scenes of Pierre praying or reciting catechisms. We learn that Pierre grew up in a Catholic boarding school, which is why he appears so pious. What had the potential to be an interesting theme is never explored. There were so many chances for symbolism and allusions. For example, Pierre could have perceived his mother as the antithesis of the Virgin Mary. Instead, Pierre never exhibits much religious distress, or even thought, at the sexual experiences that he and his mother participate in. (Pierre doesn't really say much throughout the movie, and the things he says aren't insightful in the least.) The only time the audience is reminded of Pierre's supposedly strong faith is when hymns appear in the soundtrack. That's our cue to think, "Oh, this is significant!" It's not.
Mother and son snuggle on a loveseat
What's going on in your head?
The characters in this film are neither relatable nor sympathetic. Their motives are either unclear, unexplained, or absolutely absurd, and their actions are ones that frequently make things more complicated for themselves. Hélène is obviously the number one culprit for having vague and/or idiotic motives, the main one being that life is over once your libido takes a hit. Most human beings find joy in their friends, family, careers, or hobbies. For Hélène, sex is all there is, which is heartily unbelievable. It is also unlikely that a mother would choose to kill herself in front of her son and in such a violent way, no matter how off her rocker she is. I found the whole scene completely ridiculous.
Pierre, however, is no more clear-cut than his mother. For instance, when he and his mother return home from the club with their new-found sex buddies, he runs ahead proclaiming proudly that he's going to fire the maid and the handyman, who have been nothing but kind to him. He leaps into their bedroom telling them that, if they don't leave, he's going to kill them. The idea, I suppose, is that Pierre is so chuffed from having had sex that he thinks he can do anything. But as his mother and he are rich, vapid, and lazy, it seems silly for him to take out his exhileration on the people who cook, clean, garden, and fix things for him and his mother.
Hansi, Pierre's eventual girlfriend, is another example of a character who makes no sense. She tells Pierre that his mother has been making her perform sado-masachistic exhibitionist sex in order to earn money from tourists. For some unknown reason, she and her partner show Pierre what these sessions are like. At the end, Hansi breaks down and cries, and Pierre assures her that she won't ever have to do it again. It's not clear why Hansi and her partner volunteered to perform for Pierre, and it's never explained why Hansi doesn't leave and, I don't know, get a regular job somewhere.
How do you feel about explicit sex scenes in film?
Although this movie is abysmal, there are a few positive aspects, and these appear in the technical aspects. The camera work, with the exception of one bizarre and abrupt instance of zooming in on Hélène's face during a scene, is simplistic and unobtrusive. There is a sense of serenity that comes with the naturalness of the movement, a serenity that is sadly overpowered by the awfulness that is the entire plot and phony dialogue. The soundtrack isn't bad, with the exception of the heavy-handed use of hymns. In all fairness, the actors did as good of a job as they could with the pile of fecal matter they were handed. However, Christophe Honoré, the writer of the screenplay as well as the director, should perhaps try exploring the beauties of minimalism in his next project.