What's a mother to do? depends. If she's played by Isabelle Huppert, like the one in Ma Mère, you can never be too sure. Hélène is in her 50s and when she discovers her teenage son Pierre (Louis Garrel) passed out on a downtown sidewalk at about three a.m., she gets a none-too-matronly idea. She encourages a young woman to take off her son's clothes there on the pavement and perform a certain sex act on him involving her kisser and his hind end. Hélène looks on pensively, and the next day someone asks Pierre, "Do you know your mother is nuts?" You half expect him to answer, "Well, in most contexts certainly. But this is a French film..."

Remember the scene in Fellini's Roma where an actual man in the street interrupts the filmmaking by sobbing directly into the camera and urging the director to stop making insultingly stereotypical portraits of Italian culture? Some old Maurice Chevalier sort could have done the same in Ma Mère. This is the erotic "art film" gone berserk. The plot is just as simple as it is confounding. Pierre is depressed to be spending the summer at his wealthy parents' Canary Islands beach house, poor thing. Dad dies and it's immediately clear that neither son nor mother gave a hoot about the old man-but are unusually close to each other. Now that Dad's out of the picture, Mom figures she'll reveal to her son who she really is, a drunken nympho. "I want you to love me for the shame I inspire in you," she tells him. Parents can be so demanding.

In fact, it turns out that Hélène wants just a little something more than love from her son. She wants him to know the joy of decadence. She starts hiring and/or directing other sexual adventurers to push Pierre-a devout Catholic-beyond his boundaries. Apparently she shuns Oscar Wilde's debauched love of Mother Church and instead shares the sublime wisdom that Billy Joel imparted in "Only the Good Die Young."

Based on a novel by Georges Bataille, Ma Mère goes back and forth between scenes carefully crafted to test your prudery or lack thereof and dialogue meant to suggest there's some meaning behind all this. When the girl finishes with Pierre's derriere on the sidewalk in the aforementioned scene, she tells him, "The origin of the world is this hole." That's precisely the sort of statement to which, in real life, a person might quite reasonably respond, "What?" Never mind, though. The subject is just as soon dropped. Indeed, most of the screenplay consists of meandering and inebriated characters talking just as high-falutin'. But they can't seem to make up their minds about whether their sometimes downright dangerous experiments are proof of God or the opposite. Does director Christophe Honoré have a standard against which to measure any of this? Who knows? Maybe we should create our own sliding scale. When Pierre pees on his dad's personal possessions, 20% God. When he asphyxiates a friend, 40% Not God. This movie? Off the chart.
-Kevin Allison