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Movie review: 'Ma Mere'; 'Tropical Malady'

Tribune staff reporter

"Ma Mere"

1½ stars (out of four)

French import "Ma Mere," based on the novel by Georges Bataille, is a cautionary tale. As in: "Caution: If you are at all squeamish about incest and/or prefer sex scenes without violent undertones, you should avoid this movie." That's right, folks, we're talking incest—the mother-son variety, to be exact. Hélène, (French favorite Isabelle Huppert, who has clearly decided to ignore Catherine Deneuve's example of aging gracefully, or at least without humiliating oneself), is a mother with far too much interest in her son. Pierre (played by a baleful Louis Garrel) is moody, angst-ridden and generally unpleasant. In short, he's a typical teenager.

When Pierre, just out of Catholic school and already slightly deranged, is dumped at his mother's Canary Islands home after his disinterested father is killed in a car accident, we immediately pick up on some rather odd motherly concerns. Pierre, it seems, is not sexually experienced enough to meet with his mother's approval. Alarmed by his lack of prowess, she pimps him out to her various trashy friends, male and female. The ostensible goal, we gather, is to work him into such a hormonal frenzy that he will live what Helene considers a "good" life, filled with meaningless sex and sadomasochism. Sweet, isn't it?

Pierre is initially horrified by his mother's machinations, but after a few come-hither glances from her "friends," overcomes his shyness. Thus begins his descent into total debauchery and moral bankruptcy.

Initially, American audiences may figure the charged chemistry between Pierre and Helene, the lingering gazes and even more lingering embraces, can be chalked up to European (i.e. non-puritanical) attitudes towards familial physical contact. Soon enough, however, it becomes clear there's something else going on here—and it's something most of us don't particularly want to see. The sexual perversions here are so pathetic in their desperation that they cheat the movie of its only (theoretical) saving grace: the possibility of prompting meaningful social commentary on an uncomfortable topic.

In the end, it's not the incest—or even the undercurrent of "inappropriate" and often violent sexual behaviors—that renders this movie all but unwatchable. It's the characters' total lack of humanity. The emotional shallowness is partially masked by the constant sexual contact, but, as most of us know, sex, no matter how soul-destroying, is no substitute for actually experiencing something like loss, pain or even love. It's this emotional vacuum that keeps this movie from ever becoming more than a self-satisfied, utterly hollow Bacchanal.

(In French, with English subtitles.) 1:50. Opens Friday at Landmark's Century Centre Cinema. MPAA rating: NC-17 for strong and aberrant sexuality.

"Tropical Malady"

2 stars (out of four)

"Tropical Malady" is the latest work of Thai director Apichatpong Weerasethakul, whose cult favorite "Blissfully Yours" found some audience acclaim in 2002.

The initial premise, of a love story between Keng, a soldier, and Tong, an unemployed country boy, plays itself out in a fairly pedestrian, but sweet, first half. We see the would-be lovers gravitate towards one another, go to the movies, visit a festival, explore a local temple. Then, about midway through the film, things start to get weird, before nose-diving into a total mishmash of myth, allegory and, one can only assume, deeply meaningful symbolism. Unfortunately, there's no road map to direct confused viewers.

The confusion sets in when Tong disappears (I'm gathering that he disappears because we see Keng sitting in his boyfriend's bedroom, looking either forlorn or drugged), and then a few oxen start disappearing. Oh, and by the way, there's a local legend about a powerful shaman/shape-shifter who enjoys possessing men's bodies and terrorizing the nearby forest. Guess where Tong has gone off to? He's now perching in the forest, in the form of a tiger, waiting for Keng, whom he alternately mauls and stalks. Keng, for his part, seems uninterested in leaving the forest, despite the fact that he's being lectured to by monkeys and chased by a gigantic tiger that may or may not be his lost love.

This bizarre plot twist is apparently based in Thai folklore, a fact that didn't make the movie any more interesting or understandable. For a foreign-language film to succeed, it helps if it's grounded in some universal (or at least easily translatable) truth or theme, so that the language barrier isn't complicated by an unbridgeable cultural divide.

It doesn't help that "Tropical Malady" is extremely slow—unbearably so at certain points. And even when there's no action, there's very little dialogue, and we're asked to follow the disjointed and dreamlike story line without the help of anything resembling a narrative. It's a technique that might work if the entire film were uniformly dreamy and folkloric, but up against the realism of the movie's first half, the second part falls flat. It's too bad, really: Some fantasy films make the leap from reality to reverie relatively seamlessly, hopscotching between the two states without leaving the audience behind. "Tropical Malady" is not one of those.

(In Thai, with English subtitles.) 1:58. Opens Friday at Landmark's Century Centre Cinema. No MPAA rating (parents cautioned for some sexual undercurrents).

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