starring Isabelle Huppert, Louis Garrel, Emma de Caunes, Joana Preis
screenplay by Christopher Honoré, based on the novel by Georges Bataille
directed by Christopher Honoré
starring Romain Duris, Lubna Azabal, Leila Makhlouf, Habib Cheik
written and directed by Tony Gatlif
by Bill Chambers Even after the Hays Office lost its stranglehold on the screen trade, mainstream American erotica remained a largely intellectual affair. Rather than try to get you off, films like Paul Mazursky's Bob and Carol and Ted and Alice and Mike Nichols's Carnal Knowledge were interested in examining the fallout from sex. Meanwhile, France was cranking out Sylvia Kristel movies, and the raincoat crowd could enjoy even such highbrow fare as Last Tango in Paris for long stretches. If the legit French sex cinema ultimately bore a closer resemblance to red-blooded American filth in the '70s (and not just ethically: the 'X aesthetic' was like dumbed-down nouvelle vague), it makes sense that it would chart a course parallel with stateside porno's gradual descent into the penetration abyss. But while the (d)evolution itself is an organic one born of desensitization, things have progressed along a more self-conscious path in recent years, with the incendiary work of Catherine Breillat, Gaspar Noé, and Michael Haneke helping to foster the impression of contemporary Gallic life as a veritable Sodom and Gomorrah.
Although this has yielded a handful of seminal films (particularly Breillat's Fat Girl, Noé's Irreversible, and Haneke's The Piano Teacher), it's ultimately thrown into relief the reach of the new Puritanism, which indicts sex through an unhinged sordidness. Watching Christopher Honoré's smug My Mother (Ma mère), a movie that probably couldn't exist in an earlier era (regardless of the fact that it's based on a story by transgressive author Georges Bataille, who died in 1962), one realizes that the pleasure of feeling morally superior now takes precedence over the pleasure of feeling horny. Cornering the market on incestuous brooders, The Dreamers' Louis Garrel plays Pierre, a devout Catholic who loses his unfaithful father soon after returning from boarding school to his home in the touristy Canary Islands. Less-than-grieving widow Hélène (The Piano Teacher's own Isabelle Huppert--the casting, as you can see, is far too spot-on), betraying a kind of survivor guilt, tells her son, "I don't want your love unless you know I am repulsive." What proceeds is Pierre's baptism by fire into his mother's crowd, the hedonistic elite of the summer transients.
Though Bataille definitely hails from the age of the existentialists, his ideas are liberal enough--he once called bordellos the new churches--to transcend anachronism on a modern canvas. Unfortunately, because we've been conditioned to put quotes around everything, his spiritual inquiries look more ironic than they used to. When pious Pierre starts furiously masturbating out in the open to his father's girlie mags, for instance, it's so conspicuous a rebuke to his reputation as a "pouty little bitch" that it all but confirms his closeted homosexuality. (In pop theology, God is the manifestation of shame.) His mother's self-flagellating actions, then, strike a note of sanctimony: in recruiting her friend Réa (Joana Preiss) and the local hussy, Hansi (Emma de Caunes), to awaken the stud within Pierre, The World According to Garp-like, is Hélène trying to broaden her son's horizons, or limit them? Tellingly, Réa merely nurtures his latent desires by sodomizing Pierre (there's an undercurrent of antagonism in her relationship with Hélène as well), who in turn reduces the delectable Hansi to a single orifice. ("I even admit that her ass and joy in God are both holy," Pierre says, thereby uttering the most strained dirty pun since Brando's "Your happiness is my hap-penis.") And between that naggingly glib correlation of gayness with Oedipal trauma and the characters' strictly ominous flirtations, My Mother could easily be mistaken for the latest anhedonic embarrassment out of Canada. The already-famous ending is kinda clever, though.
You have to search outside the genre for guiltless kicks these days. Achieving more heat in its panoramic opening shot--a veritable constellation of imperfections on the olive skin of a young man's back--than My Mother does in its entirety, Tony Gatlif's Exiles (or Exils) makes for a nice palate cleanser to Honoré's onanistic trash. Struck by wanderlust while staring out the window of his Paris flat, Zano (Romain Duris) invites his lover Naima (Lubna Azabal) on a pilgrimage to their homeland of Algeria. The two fuck and fight their way across the Mediterranean, their journey culminating in a provocative tableau of our human boomerangs walking against the flow of refugees at the gates of Algeria. If Exiles is no less navel-gazing than Gatlif's previous films (a French citizen of Algerian/Gypsy descent, he sometimes deals in ciphers as a result of wiring all his protagonists to the same cultural background--his own), it's personal in ways that reflect not only the auteur's sense of anthropological duty, but also his artistic metamorphosis from modernist to naturalist--particularly in the music that serves as the couple's trail of breadcrumbs. As Zano and Naima's cosmic radio tunes into first electronica, then flamenco, only to finally engulf them in the tribal rhythms that accompany a Sufi cleansing ritual, Exiles becomes an all-too-rare, impossibly tactile snapshot of unabashed joy. The primordial pleasures are at least a little less ephemeral with Gatlif and his unblinking camera around. Originally published: July 15, 2005.
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