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Bad things happen to good moms in Dark Water and Ma Mère, two very different visions of maternal sacrifice. Most people who see the latter—and “most people” should not see it—probably wouldn’t characterize its matriarch as good, yet both mamas are saints of a sort, and both endure similar fates. It’s just that Jennifer Connelly’s Dahlia takes the traditional role of fighting for her child, whereas Isabelle Huppert’s Hélène battles for something that, although carnal, is considerably more abstract.
This is the summer of the bloated B-movie, and Dark Water—like Revenge of the Sith, Batman Begins, and War of the Worlds—would be more engaging if it had been made with less money and solemnity. In this case, a simpler version of the movie actually exists: It’s Ringu director Hideo Nakata’s original, released in 2002 and probably available at a video store near you. Rio de Janeiro– born filmmaker Walter Salles’ remake follows Nakata’s film fairly closely, even though it changes the location and language and—inevitably—mucks around with the ending.
The new rendition works reasonably well, but is a waste of everyone’s talents. It would have made more sense for Salles (who’s best known here for Central Station and The Motorcycle Diaries) to adapt his own cycle-of-vengeance Behind the Sun to the American West or South than to transplant this profoundly Asian story from Tokyo to New York. Not only does the constant rain suggest a different continent altogether—such downpours are a comic motif in the films of Taiwan’s Tsai Ming-Liang, for example—but the premise is basically un-American. Dark Water is a ghost story, a genre that has a long and estimable history in Japanese literature and cinema but has been mere pulp fodder in this country.
Both versions of the movie open with essentially the same prologue: On a rainy day, a young girl waits after school for her mother, who doesn’t show. The girl grows up to be the protagonist, who’s obsessed with never deserting her daughter the way she was frequently abandoned. Newly separated from her husband, Kyle (Dougray Scott), Dahlia looks for a cheap apartment to share with kindergarten-age Ceci (Ariel Gade). They end up on Roosevelt Island, a sliver of land in the East River where sleazy real-estate agent Murray (John C. Reilly) finds an apartment for Dahlia that’s even smaller and cruddier than the place in the earlier movie. (If nothing else, Dark Water is a useful corrective to Woody Allen’s fantasies of New York apartment living.) Gruff, withdrawn building super Veeck (Pete Postlethwaite) isn’t much help with the apartment’s persistent leaks. He’s also averse to answering questions about the people who used to live directly above Dahlia and Ceci. That family had a girl about Ceci’s age, and she—or at least her peripatetic Hello Kitty book bag—seems still to be an active presence in the building.
Re-scripter Rafael Yglesias (Fearless) has beefed up various backstories and added some quirks. Mom’s lawyer Kishida, a reassuring male authority figure in the original, has become Jeff Platzer (Tim Roth), who’s just as competent but much more eccentric. Cinematographer Affonso Beato renders the story in harsh, grainy images, often shadowy and frequently greenish, while Angelo Badalamenti’s funereal score alternates with drips, gurgles, throbs, and mysterious weezing. (The first film’s building had plumbing problems; the remake’s apparently has bronchitis.) Yet this Dark Water is so immediately creepy that it barely has any place to go. The upscale cast and crew might seem to promise a remake that will emphasize the social and psychological aspects of the story, but any hopes to that effect are quickly dashed. The Brazilian director, it turns out, has made a typical American horror/suspense flick: a macabre fantasy so predictable that it functions less as narrative than as ritual.
In the Japanese Dark Water, the put-upon mom admits that she once sought psychological counseling—but only because she was so disturbed by her proofreading job, which included the close reading of sadistic novels. Perhaps she was perusing Japanese translations of books by Georges Bataille, the author of Ma Mère. Once a candidate for the priesthood, Bataille also dealt in a sort of ritual: Like his fellow French poets of corruption, de Sade and Genet, he transfigured the Catholic ceremonies of his youth into an eroticism of abjection and release. If that sounds unpleasant, writer-director Christophe Honoré is here to demonstrate that it looks that way, too.
Superficially, of course, Ma Mère looks quite nice. Set in the Canary Islands, it features semitropical locations, a pretty cast, and a relaxed, upscale lifestyle. According to the film, however, this lifestyle inspires a desperate decadence. Affluent tourists arrive in the resort looking for the sort of nasty fun they can’t have at home. Among the people who sometimes indulge these lascivious questers is Hélène, who heads a small posse of sybarites. Initially, this aspect of his mother’s life is unknown to 17-year-old Pierre (Louis Garrel, looking much less at home with transgression than in The Dreamers.) A devout Catholic who’s being raised by his grandparents in gray, proper France, Pierre is visiting his parents in the Canaries when his father dies. Hélène takes this as a signal to introduce her son to her polysexual demimonde, beginning with Rea (Joana Preis), “the wildest girl I know.” Rea promptly sticks her finger up the boy’s butt and offers Mom a sniff. “The origin of the world is in this hole,” Rea announces a little later.
In Ma Mère, such epigrams are almost as common as nude bodies and simulated sex acts. “I don’t believe in perversion at all,” announces Hansi (Emma de Caunes), the dislikable young lovely in whose care Mom leaves her son after deciding “we went a little far” at a five-way orgy. Getting into the spirit, Pierre confides in a letter—to his mother, of course—that he prefers Hansi’s ass to God. (This doesn’t actually seem much of a contest.) “Wrong isn’t what we’re going to do. Wrong is wanting to survive it,” Hélène tells Pierre after she returns, erotically sated and ready for the big finish. And what’s that? A clue is the story recounted by one of Hansi’s amoral pals, a young man who found it “sweet” when an older guy made him his “pig,” fattening him for the slaughter. In Bataille’s universe, any moment could be ideal for unholy communion, and the flesh and blood aren’t always symbolic.
Narratively, Honoré’s film resembles Huppert’s recent acting career: an attempt to outdo previous affronts offered in the cause of liberation, yet coming across as more of a duty than a pleasure. Although the imperiously detached actress doesn’t take a razor blade to her crotch this time, Ma Mère is even more calculated to scandalize than the film in which she did, Michael Haneke’s The Piano Teacher. The depiction of flabby, sex-trawling tourists has some satiric bite, and the use of music—Samuel Barber’s Agnus Dei and a ’60s pop song you’ll never hear the same way again—is wittily ironic. Ultimately, however, the movie leaves us with the weepy, bewildered Pierre and the coldly kinky Bataille—and both of them are no fun. There’s more sensuality in Hélène Louvart’s fluid cinematography and Chantal Hymans’ brisk editing than in the film’s scenario. A Bataille book may be a great movie prop—Julie Delpy carried a copy of Ma Mère in Before Sunrise—but the writer’s infamies look much more sophisticated sitting in someone’s back pocket than acted out onscreen.CP