Ma Mere – Christophe Honoré and Bataille on the silver screen. (film review)
I love Bataille for many reasons but one of the biggest is his ability to circle around the beautiful and the ugly as if each can be interchanged in a perpetual whirlpool or vortex slung over our base desires. When Christophe Honoré decided to make a film of Batailles unfinished novel published posthumously, he took on the enormous challenge of translating Bataille, something very few film makers have dared to attempt. The result is this beautiful and complicated film that – of course – is as deeply misunderstood as Bataille is himself.
It should be fessed up front that I am a fan of the New French Extremity, so this kind of film appeals to me anyway, and I am tantalized (the shadow of fear?) by extreme and complex sexual scenarios so the film appeals to me even without the added bonus of being direct from the heart of Bataille. I have no idea what Bataille might make of the film, but of course that is no matter, because this is Christophe Honoré’s film and not Bataille. Surely novels are abandoned by writers once they are published anyway? And yes, it is confronting. However Honoré does what I think is an excellent job of being true to Batialles aesthetic in that the desire between mother and son – or between the first lover and all they taught you – is represented in all its flaming beauty and tar-pit ugliness.
Isabelle Huppert plays Helene “the mother” – a woman who is a confessed hedonist. When her son returns from living with his Catholic grandparents to his parents house, he is sexually of age and naturally his perverse mother takes a real interest in him for the first time. It is soon after this initial bonding between mother and son that her husband, his father dies in a car crash and Pierre (the absolutely gorgeous Louis Garrel) is left alone with his mother, who decides its time to train her son in the ways of her world. Like all young men, he has the Oedipal thing going, however not like all young men, he has a mother who will happily introduce him to the ways of sex as long as they are found in the depths of depravity. It is Helene’s availability and the availability of fulfillment of every base desire that will be the undoing of pretty much every one they encounter together and separately.
Always with Bataille, death is not far behind sex – La petit mort is throbbing at the base of every orgasm. Without giving the plot away, be warned that sex and death are intimately linked for Bataille and Honore has remained as true to Bataille as he can. The sex scenes are not depicted as beautifully as the scenes of intimacy, a clever trick of Honore’s that I think keeps the film true to the heart of Bataille. Sex is something people do in order to get it out of the way so that they can be close to each other. And yet the refusal to engage in sex between mother and son draws this unhappy couple closer and closer toward the inevitability. When they eventually decide to consummate what we know must happen, Mother councils son that she will not do this if they intend to get over it. Bataille never claims that sex is noting, rather that it is everything, despite our casual nature toward it.
Christophe Honoré is a gay man with an eye for beauty. He chose Isabelle Huppert because what sane human creature would not want to have sex with her, male or female, friend or child? Surely she is the most attractive woman in the world – at least the most sexy. She is at her alluring best here, her even stare and her blank lack of morality are deadly as you can’t belive her when she claims she will leave you as a victim of yourself. There is something inherently powerful about the woman who takes control and no responsibility, and this is a woman who will cut open her belly to allow her son to squeeze his fingers into the flesh that formed him as he prepares to make love to her. All the characters in this film are beautiful – but Bataille dealt with beauty as well. Helene surrounds herself with young people. Mostly because she can control them, but also because they are beautiful. Still, at almost fifty when she made the film, she is easily the most devastatingly attractive person in the film.
Despite the shocking subject matter and the almost perpetual nudity, this is not a film that is made to titillate, and many audiences do not know what to do with it. If you are courageous enough to place yourself in the shoes of any of the characters portrayed – something I believe Bataille wanted us to do – you will learn a great deal about yourself. If you want to be tempted to the masturbatory impulse young Pierre finds himself subject to regularly throughout the film, you may be disappointed.
Or, you may be well served – which may end up being of greater disappointment.
But then that’s the risk you always take with Bataille.