Pierre (Louis Garrel) returns home to his parents' place in the Canary Islands for the summer holidays, but finds the pace of life rather dull. He looks up to his mother, Hélène (Isabelle Huppert), but is she worthy of his devotion? When she goes out at nights, she doesn't take her husband with her, and neither is she keen on taking Pierre, but when she collapses one day he is concerned about her health. And when Pierre's father dies in an accident, the trauma of the loss forces the young man into a bout of depression which is only lifted when his mother decides to take him under her wing and give him a taste of the party hard lifestyle she enjoys. But is she intentionally corrupting him with her hedonistic ways?
Why yes, yes she is. Director and writer Christophe Honoré loosely adapted Georges Bataille's novel to see how far he could push the morals of the 2000s but what he came up with is less likely to shock deeply than bore completely in spite of its daring examination of the limits of personal freedom in modern society. Huppert was well known by this time for taking roles that pushed boundaries, and here she showed no signs of being any less controversial playing a rich widow who is a self confessed "slut" and the depths she sinks to are presumably supposed to leave the viewer shaken. However, as extreme as the film becomes, there's the unmistakable whiff of absurdity about its pretentions.
And "pretentions" is the right word, as pretentious this effort most certainly is. After a muted opening which has the surly Pierre moping about in the wake of his bereavement, Hélène tells him to clear out his father's belongings from his office. There Pierre uncovers a stash of pornography which he miserably masturbates over and then urinates on, also in a miserable fashion. Then a spot of miserable nude sunbathing is next on his agenda, and this appears to alert his mother to the fact that he may be in just the right frame of mind for her decadent influence to take effect.
Pierre cottons on that the night he is being taken out on may not be as wholesome as he might have expected when his mother's friend Rea (Joana Priess) sticks her finger up his arse in the back of the taxi. See what I mean about absurdity? This is meant to be the instigation of a downward spiral for Pierre that he may or may not be improved by his surviving, but it's just silly, and the painful seriousness of the approach does the film no favours. Eventually, not only do he and Rea enjoy sex in the local shopping mall one night, in full view of passers by, but he is escorted to her place for more shagging, in full view of his mother who seems to be adopting a "cruel to be kind" view of parenthood. Meanwhile, we sense that he is suffering a moral crisis.
We are given hints that this is the case when Pierre quotes from the Bible, both running down the street in a rainstorm and in the expected, moody voiceover. From this the shackles of a good Catholic education are seen to be removed, and when Hélène goes away for a while to pursue, um, more decadence I guess, she leaves him in the care of Hansi (Emma de Caunes) who it turns out she has been grooming to carry on her perverted ways. From there Pierre is seduced by the young woman, and the situation gets worse for him as sado-masochism rears its ugly head. If this sounds like a succession of steamy sex scenes, the overall gloom of the atmosphere it's filmed in should have you yawning away any potential excitement. At least by the end there is one unintentionally hilarious bit where Pierre's depravity goes about as far as it can. Overall, Ma Mère is mainly tedious and has a far higher opinion of its scandalousness than it earns.