This is the last of the foreign contingent in my single DVD collection and as with several others this year there is a single reason why I have it, and that is Isabelle Huppert. In a way that is different from all her other performances reviewed this year, Huppert is again superb, holding the eye every moment she is on the screen, but that’s not to say that this is a great film, or even a good one on more than one level. With the posssible exception of Fantasia 2000, it is the poorest film in my collection this year, and the one about which I have the most doubts about retaining.
The film, made in 2004 and adapting a 1966 novel, is set on Gran Canaria in the Canary Islands. Louis Garrel plays Pierre, a 17 year old boy, who has left a Catholic Boarding School to spend the summer with his wealthy parents, Helene (Huppert) and his unnamed father. Pierre’s father dies, abruptly and anonymously, offscreen and unmourned, leaving Pierre to the tender care, or rather mercies, of his mother.
But Helene has already pronounced herself to be sexually unfaithful, a bitch, a slut and a woman of – and the word here is exactly appropriate though it’s never used in the film – depravity. Actually, Helene’s exposure of herself is less a pronouncement than a boast, and it sounds like a hollow boast. There are going to be several times when characters will talk of depraved things they have participated in, but it’s all talk. We are going to see enough unconventional sexual behaviour throughout Ma Mere, though in itself it’s thin and slightly desperate stuff, but the real hardcore doesn’t get to the screen, except in a relatively mild whipping scene.
What we get is a parade of decadence. Helene is promiscuous, though we don’t actually see her having sex. Sexual acts yes, as in playing with the breasts of her friend and partner-in-depravity, Rea (Joanna Preiss), who’s about half her age, and who takes Pierre’s virginity, in public, at night, in a shopping complex, whilst Helene watches.
And just before disappearing, with Rea, for about half the film, Helene implies that she and Pierre have had sex, in the aftermath of an orgy, though whether this is true or not is a matter for the individual viewer to decide for themselves.
Pierre is left alone. He has already fired his parents’ servants, Marthe – the only one genuinely pleased to see him and more motherly than anyone else in the film – and Robert, but a sweet-looking young girl, Hansi (Emma de Caunes) takes him up. Hansi is part of Helene’s coterie and has been tasked with looking after Pierre, though she denies having been paid to do so.
Hansi is a junior sexual adventuress, an acolyte who hasn’t yet gone half as far as Helene but who’s striving defiantly to catch up. Desire has no boundaries, the film proclaims, and so do half the characters, and it may be my background, my upbringing or just that I’m repressed, but it comes over to me as if the main person everyone is trying to convince is themselves. The film is both shallow and hollow, pursuing its aim of corrupting itself with no real enjoyment.
Hansi does reach a limit, in whipping the eager masochist Loulou. She’s been ordered into doing so in concert with Helene several times, and whilst she pursues the whipping with inflexible determination, caught up in the moment, she is convincingly tearful the next morning, needful of Pierre’s promise that they won’t do that again. Hansi tells Pierre that she loves him, she really does, though the film doesn’t give us enough time afterwards to test whether that is true or merely gratitude.
What strikes me most is that all this sexual pursuit is completely devoid of feeling, only sensation, and that the sensation doesn’t seem to be doing anybody any good. Rea is the most energetic and most wilful, insisting on perversion for perversion’s sake, but it’s a soulless pursuit. All she wants is what she wants: she has no thought for what others may want, nor the consequences to them of her doing what she wants, following her passing whim on the moment.
Rea is the more active and thus extreme representation in the film. Helene, we are meant to believe, is her superior in practice and breadth of experience, but she’s an essentially passive practitioner, watching rather than doing. Huppert is languid, slow of movement, a husk even before Helene pronounces herself burnt out. Here’s the brilliance of her performance: Helene’s eyes are dead, allowing us to understand that she is dead inside, though the film doesn’t give us enough to decide whether she has always been like this or whether it is a consequence of her self-indulgence.
I should mention that Pierre’s pere is briefly portrayed as no better: he knows of and is unconcerned about Helene’s promiscuity, and after his death, when Helene delegates to him the too-wearisome task of getting rid of his ‘rubbish’, Pierre discovers a substantial porn collection, over which he first masturbates then pisses.
And later, Helene claims she never loved Pierre’s father, that he first met her riding naked in the forest, aged under 13, and more or less raped her.
Ultimately, everyone in this film, with the possible exeption of Marthe and Robert, is alone. They have rejected convention, and Pierre for all his piety is on his way too, but in rejecting convention and giving way to the pursuit of doing exactly what they feel like – more for the sake of it than the enjoyment of it, or so the film feels to me, which, if you read the blurb on the back of the DVD case is not what it hopes to convey – they have rejected connection on any level except the body. Personally, that’s not enough. That’s way not enough.
The ending is meant to leave us with a final, transgressive shock. I certainly remembered it from the first time I watched Ma Mere, where virtually no other details were retained, but this time I was just unmoved. Helene and Rea return out of the blue. Helene monopolises and fascinates Pierre, to the chagrin of Hansi. She asks him to sleep with her that night. Using the scalpel from her surgical kit, he cuts her abdomen, prises the cut open with his finger, and masturbates. Whilst he does, she cuts her own throat.
Is the corruption of Pierre complete, or is it a superficial thing that he will shrug off as a teenage summer’s wildness? If we care, we are left to wonder. But I note how Pierre was able to finger Helene’s cut, and her blood, when throughout the film he’s rejected the stickiness and moisture of sex and genitals, the sliminess of semen.
And the ending that shocks us so? Pierre visits the funeral parlour, his mother’s body laid out in a glass case, a bier. The attendant retires discretely. Pierre leans against the wall, slides down until only his head is visible.The attendant suspects and enters to prove his suspicion: Pierre is wanking himself off. He lurches towards the bier, sceaming, “I don’t want to die!” and the film cuts instantly into its silent closing credits.
As well as everything I’ve said above, the film is confused, and blurred, in both its laying out of the story and its direction. It meanders. It does little within its 108 minutes to establish that Pierre is or ever really has been pious: I got that from the Wikipedia entry. Garrel, from the outset, plays Pierre as a typical moody teenager, unpleasantly selfish.
That said, for all its flaws, I’ll keep Ma Mere, for the reason I bought it in the first place: Isabelle Huppert. From first to last, she is her usual superb self, and though in real life she was nearly a decade older than the 43 years Helene is supposed to be, her small, slim form carries in it a charged sexuality that is present in every scene, though unlike Preiss or de Caunes she does no nudity: Huppert in a silk blouse and linen pants just looks the heat.
And for someone whose acting is usually as full of life as can be, she is equally impressive in her emptiness and inertia. It’s a pity she didn’t have better material to work with.