Dear Mother absolutely won’t be for everyone, especially not the easily offended, but this bizarre French comedy is a very funny time if you meet it halfway.
This review of Dear Mother is spoiler-free.
Jean-Louis (director Laurent Lafitte) has a problem, and the problem is that he’s dead. Technically, anyway. His heart has stopped beating without explanation, and yet he continues to walk and talk as usual. Something’s obviously up, something which can’t be diagnosed by his veterinarian friend Michel (Vincent Macaigne). Jean-Louis’s only solution seems to be Margaux (Nicole Garcia), a holistic life coach recommended to him by his wife, Valérie (Karin Viard). But the root cause of Jean-Louis’s affliction might not be anything medical, but the complex, estranged relationship he has with his mother, Brigitte (Hélène Vincent). Getting to the bottom of it, though, will require… well, really getting to the bottom of it.
So, this is the premise of Dear Mother – a man must try and take a Polaroid photograph of his mother’s vagina in order to potentially save his own life. It’s also the plot of Sébastien Thiéry’s 2013 play The Origin of the World, from which this film is adapted by its star, Lafitte. It is, to put things mildly, absolutely bonkers.
The metaphor here is, obviously, for a midlife crisis; a man who is adrift in his long-time marriage, facing the perils of aging, and unable to quell his own impulses and urges. Jean-Louis isn’t a likable guy, which makes sense when you consider we’re supposed to buy into the idea that he might not have a heart at all. Throughout the film, Jean-Louis doesn’t become more likable, either. Instead, he unravels a litany of uncomfortable, Oedipal truths that go some way towards explaining why he is the way he is. But ultimately, and as ever, he chooses to put himself first.
This examination of an arrogant and selfish man is a sometimes very funny exercise in ridiculous, often deliberately provocative comedy. Few taboos are left untouched, all kinds of boundaries are crossed, and Dear Mother continues to ask difficult questions – and show difficult things – right up until its closing seconds. This is a comedy in which a man posing as a gynecologist tries to force a woman in her 80s to hike up her skirt. But far from feeling exploitative, Dear Mother feels like a throwback to a looser era of big-screen comedies that were less prudish and socially conscious. You wouldn’t want every film to be like this one, but it’s always nice when you discover they’re still being made.
Behind all this, there’s a welcome degree of craft, especially in the performances, and in infrequent nightmare sequences that double as sledgehammer-subtle psychological metaphors. Some of the most questionable scenes are played with such a confident air of comedy – and the obviously willing participation of everyone involved – that the blow is softened, and what might seem edgy becomes teasing and playful. The themes remain important, and the humor remains risqué, but there’s nothing mean-spirited here. It won’t be for everyone, though nothing is, but those who’re able to get on its wavelength will find a very funny surrealist comedy here.