Dir: Christophe Honore.France. 2004. 109 mins.

It's not difficult to seewhy second-time director Christophe Honore was surprised when Ma Mere,his incest-laced study of sexual obsession was turned down by the Cannesselection committee: it is, after all, much more of a festival film than acommercial prospect. Striking in its stark cinematic language, with a jerkysyntax that reminds one of Godard or Antonioni, Honore's film at first builds acold grace and authority as it tracks a 17-year-old boy's discovery of hismother's sexual depravity. But this adaptation of an unfinished novel by Frencherotic surrealist Georges Bataille is in the end too formalist for its owngood, too much of an old-fashioned, theory-led exposure of bourgeois alienation(remember that') for us to care much about the characters or the problems theyinvent to help them deal with the crushing boredom of it all.

The film's so-so screenaverages since its 19 May French release prove that explicit sex scenes,Isabelle Huppert and new French poster-boy Louis Garrel (last seen inBertolucci's The Dreamers) are not enough to give a resolutely austerefilm any real crossover potential. The mistake was perhaps to open so wide:like Bruno Dumont's Twentynine Palms, this is a film for dedicated andresilient urban arthouse audiences, and should be marketed and distributed assuch.

Ma Mere is set in the Canary Islands, in one of thoseprotected, artificial villa-and-pool condos that turn real places intocomfortable but desolate tourist limbos. This works well: the director buildsup a chilling sense of emptiness in his shots of weary sun-worshippers trampingacross the dunes like lost and straggling refugees; and in the random, uglyfurniture of the holiday villa where Pierre (Garrel) goes to spend the summerwith his mother (Huppert) and his father (Philippe Duclos).

It's not long before papa iscalled back to France for work; while there, he dies in a car crash, leavingthe hunky Pierre alone with his icily beautiful mother, who he worships, desiresand fears in more or less equal measures. Jump-cutting, intrusive zooms andclaustrophobic camera angles stoke a growing unease, which is only increasedwhen the mother reveals to her son that she is utterly addicted to sex, themore perverse the better. She invites Pierre for a night out with anup-for-anything girlfriend, Rea (Joanna Preiss), and watches while Rea makeslove to him in a shopping mall.

The sex scenes are explicitbut oddly un-erotic. Couplings are intense but joyless, and flesh is lit bycold neon or the too-bright white light that bounces off the walls of thevilla. Stirrings of tenderness - for example, between Pierre and one of hismother's young acolytes, Hansi, are smothered before they can spread.

Most viewers will bereminded of Huppert's role as the buttoned-up piano teacher with a perversesexual double-life in Michael Haneke's La Pianiste. But her character inMa Mere, though no less depraved, is no hypocrite: she has no desire tokeep up appearances (though she is forced to feign grief when her husband dies,and advises Pierre to do the same), and revels in her immorality, telling herboy that she wants him to love her "for the disgust I provoke".

Garrel, who comes on like across between Jim Morrison and Buster Keaton, is good as the passive son, partpupil, part victim, part provocateur. But in the final half hour, thepseudo-spiritual ramblings ("her ass makes me realise that I never really lovedGod") get increasingly difficult to take, and the sex-and-death finale is too hokilyschematic for words. The best bits of MaMere are those where Honore is least faithful to Bataille's original text;if he had cheated and betrayed a little more courageously, this interestingexperiment might have become a very good film.

Prod co/Fr dist/int'lsales: Gemini Films
Paulo Branco
Christophe Honore, from thenovel by Georges Bataille
Cine: Helene Louvart
Prod des:
Laurent Allaire
Chantal Hymans
Main cast:
Isabelle Huppert,Louis Garrel, Emma de Caunes, Joana Preiss, Jean-Baptiste Montagut