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Pleasures of 'Ma Mere' are painful

A warning: The prospect of Isabelle Huppert starring in a film called ''Ma Mère" (''My Mother") should not put you in mind of rocking chairs, chocolate chip cookies made from scratch, and phone calls home. You'd do well to remember that the last time many of us saw this actress, it was in the title role of ''The Piano Teacher" (2001), in which she put broken glass in the pocket of a rival and stabbed herself in the chest as a means of getting her young lover's attention.

That, it appears, was just a warm-up. Heaven help us if Huppert ever decides to star in ''The Mother Teresa Story."

In ''Ma Mère," she plays Helene, a jaded, sybaritic Frenchwoman living in the Canary Islands, where she spends each night in a nihilistic blurt of sex with whomever she can find at the local clubs. Her partner in degradation is a ferret-faced young hottie named Rea (Joana Preiss); Helene has an elderly husband (Philippe Duclos) stashed at home, but he's not much in the picture and is soon out of it completely.

She also has a 17-year-old son, Pierre (Louis Garrel): dark, leonine, freshly returned from Catholic school, and an Oedipal wreck who careens between prayers to the Virgin Mary and bouts of frenzied onanism not at all related to his mother and her pursuits.

You may have figured out by now that ''Ma Mère" isn't for the kiddies. It probably isn't for anyone not interested in the darkest corners of the human psyche, where sexual annihilation is the only response to a fallen world, where all moral bets are off, and where a boy's worst friend is his mother. ''The pleasure only begins once the worm is in the fruit," Helene tells her son as part of his indoctrination in the harsh realities of life. Other catechisms include urging Pierre to have public sex with Rea in a late-night subway station while Mama watches. And we're still only halfway down an extremely slippery slope.

Directed by Christophe Honore, ''Ma Mère" would be merely another in the recent wave of brainiac French sex provocations except for a few things. It's based on an unfinished work by Georges Bataille, the 20th-century novelist, essayist, and ''metaphysician of evil" whose unstinting pessimism gives the film the rigor it needs to stay just this side of screaming pretentiousness. Garrel is much better here than in Bertolucci's ''The Dreamers" -- a puppet show compared with this -- and he manages to convey all sides of a very confused boy-man. Honore and his camerawoman Helene Louvart keep us continually off-balance with unsettling uses of zooms and chiaroscuro; the visuals are overdone, but to a purpose.

And there's Huppert, who in her early 50s has become her country's great, gloomy Queen of Darkness -- Garbo for an age of postmodern kink. She doesn't act here so much as preside over the movie's restless search for obliteration, and she gets you to understand both the carnal avidity that has kept Helene young and the knowledge of the void that has prematurely aged her. (What she doesn't have is any fun, but if that's what you're looking for, French cinema isn't the place to find it.)

Helene disappears during the last third of ''Ma Mère," leaving Pierre in the care and erotic feeding of her acolyte, a pretty young German tourist named Hansi (Emma de Caunes). The two kids play at the edges of the darkness and get sucked in further than they know how to handle, and just as it feels ''Ma Mère" is losing its way, Huppert returns to take the movie soaring outrageously over the top in a climactic scene that will probably send the few remaining theater-goers bolting for the exits, hands clamped over mouths.

They'll miss Pierre's final cry of despair, though -- an outburst that unexpectedly connects all the dots of this absurd, obscene, oddly powerful experience. ''Ma Mère" drops the awful hint that we may never connect with another human being besides the one in whose womb we started out.

Ty Burr can be reached at

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