The Mother and the Whore

Maternal affairs: Fonda smolders as soul-freezing witch; Huppert sluts it up on autopilot

"I don't want your love unless you know I am repulsive," intones the luxuriantly dissolute matriarch to her teenage son in Georges Bataille's 1966 novella Ma Mère. This week's pair of formidable mothers superior turn cartwheels on the thin line between love and hate, transforming into rapacious gargoyles in a fiery apotheosis of self-abnegating devotion to their flummoxed mama's boys (only children both!). They're also, as embodied by Jane Fonda and Isabelle Huppert, smolderingly fine, twin ideals of burnished autumnal womanhood. In the jackbooted farce Monster-in-Law, Fonda's suddenly jobless TV news queen channels all of her displaced type-A mania into derailing her son's engagement, while in Christophe Honoré's literal-minded Bataille adaptation, Huppert's recently widowed lady of leisure works through her grief by inducting junior into her nightclub society of sordid sexual compulsion. As British talk show axiom Trisha Goddard would quip, "That's mothering with a capital S."

Essentially Meet the Parents redux with Fonda in the scarifying De Niro role, Monster-in-Law marks a continuation of Jennifer Lopez's affinity for chaste, earthy gals in low-level employment who innocently snag pale males with fat wallets. Her Charlie is a cheerful, unambitious temp who always awakens in full makeup, a believer in karma and walker of dogs. Perhaps mindful of any dissonance with her supersize public persona, Lopez overcompensates with a squeaky little-girl cutesiness that may divert more sympathy to the titular she-beast's corner than intended. Apparently, J.Lo also has a clause in her contract obligating each of her directors to a Bottom-Dollar Shot, here occasioned when Charlie's prospective mother-in-law cruelly gives her a tiny frock that fits like a sausage casing over her lingeringly showcased derriere. "I have two asses," wails Charlie. If only! One could launch Lo's latest fragrance while the other tours with Marc Anthony.

Sabotage by couture is the least of the guerrilla tactics deployed against Charlie by Fonda's Viola, a Walters-esque media doyenne left with far too much time on her bejeweled hands after she's toppled from her throne by a demographically correct bimbo. Millionaire Viola is enraged that her blandly handsome surgeon offspring, Kevin (Michael Vartan), is marrying down; he impulsively asks for Charlie's hand in front of Mom, a decent indicator of just how close these home fires burn. Handy with her fists, possessed of a soul-freezing witchy cackle, the single-minded Viola guzzles cough syrup at crisis moments and doesn't blanch at photo surveillance or poisoning the gravy. (Fonda says she based the character on ex-husband Ted Turner.)

Mothering with a capital S: Fonda
photo: Melissa Moseley/SMPSP/New Line Productions
Mothering with a capital S: Fonda

Details

Monster-in-Law
Directed by Robert Luketic
New Line, opens May 13

Ma Mère
Directed by Christophe Honoré
TLA, opens May 13, Quad

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Legally Blonde director Robert Luketic bumbles along with typically clumsy blocking and framing, and the misogyny inherent in the three-ring spectacle of bitch slaps, barbiturate covert ops, and wedding plan hysteria does rankle—Charlie really loses her shit when Viola arrives at her ceremony wearing white. All the same, hail the conquering heroine Fonda, absent from the big screen for 15 years, looking supernaturally fabulous at 67—those eyes! those legs!—and delivering a relaxed yet utterly committed performance in humble service of a little marketing synergy with her autobiography. Tapping comic gifts that have lain fallow for the quarter-century since 9 to 5, Fonda forges a spirited rapport with an ad-libbing Wanda Sykes; as Ruby, Viola's long-suffering personal assistant, the redoubtable Sykes coolly dismantles her Sassy Black Sidekick role with a level gaze and killer timing.

"I always thought that Kevin looked like Jesus," Viola muses in just one of many lines calculated to send Charlie screaming for the hills. In Ma Mère, the churchgoing good son Pierre (Louis Garrel) endures a passion of sorts, dragged along on a self-mortifying, crypto-religious quest for ultimate transgression and totalized carnal abjection, as personified by his godlike Maman, all-knowing in her "perfect depravity." That's at least the arguable gist of Bataille's perhaps unadaptable book, which director Honoré translates on-screen as an interminable back-and-forth of joyless orgasmic frenzy and postcoital vacationers' lull. On holiday in the Canaries, Pierre's sad-sack father dies, and red-hot Mom (Huppert, sleepwalking through another affectless-hedonist role) responds with a series of assignments for her son: Clear out Papa's office, fuck this girl in public while I watch, etc.

Lurching toward its inevitable incestuous showdown, Ma Mère makes a few hilarious attempts at the cerebral (one philosophical inquiry begins, "If I love Hansi's ass so much . . . ") but can't transcend its own suffocating milieu, a moneyed purgatorio where spoiled brats exorcise their demons by pissing on Dad's nudie-mag stash and firing the help in a drunken snit. Like Monster-in-Law, Ma Mère goes down easiest as a strong antidote to class envy—it's a relief to discover that idle wealth is an intractable state of miserable, deranging torpor.

 
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