“Popular culture feels compelled to interrogate the ‘barren’ years, in some cases expressed as a contradiction between competing life goals: the other-oriented value of maternal self-sacrifice and the inner-oriented value of following one’s bliss. The aging mother should, in theory, be free to indulge her desires. When desire runs afoul of ‘age appropriate’ codes of conduct, however, the positive goal of self-actualization can take a nasty detour.”
Femmes d’un certain age (the French is so much more nuanced) are credibly possessed of a sexual maturity that might be characterized as ripe or seasoned (vintage wine comes to mind.) The cougar, an attractive “older” woman who enjoys the sexual favors of much younger men, is a familiar stereotype in the pop culture of late modernity. Aging boomers do not go quietly . . . Nevertheless, there are older women who are, well, “old,” not only in respect of age, but in acquiescence to a rigid class- and/or tradition-bound set of standards and expectations that render them more or less invisible. This is especially the case when such older women are widows. Spinsters or the childless may be permitted a certain quirky subversiveness; they are already outside the circle of patriarchal preoccupation. Mothers, on the other hand, have some heavy lifting to do. When mothers transgress (aging mothers, in particular), we may express shock, precisely because the constraints upon them seem so “natural.” After all, the status of “mother” carries a certain historical weight that privileges sacrifice, sanctity, and purity. If the values of sanctity and purity have lost some of their cachet over the years, sacrifice still commands a high degree of moral approbation. Cinematic representation of fallen mothers who are past their prime can be dicey because, for one thing, overt matronly-ness tends to ignite the “ick” factor as far as sexuality is concerned. The very appearance of the “elderly” mother is bound to create a disturbing disconnect between who she is and what she does (or whom she desires.) But therein lies the dramatic tension. Popular culture feels compelled to interrogate the “barren” years, in some cases expressed as a contradiction between competing life goals: the other-oriented value of maternal self-sacrifice and the inner-oriented value of following one’s bliss. The aging mother should, in theory, be free to indulge her desires. When desire runs afoul of “age appropriate” codes of conduct, however, the positive goal of self-actualization can take a nasty detour.
Satin Rouge (2002), written and directed by Tunisian-born Raja Amari, is an Arab-language film about a middle-aged widow’s metamorphosis from drab hausfrau to star belly dancer in the neighborhood cabaret. Along the way she has sex with her daughter’s boyfriend. It is the only one of the three films written and directed by a woman. In the U.K. film, The Mother (2003), written by Hanif Khureshi and directed by Roger Mitchell, a recently widowed mother and grandmother rediscovers her sexuality with a man half her age who is (also) her daughter’s lover. And in Irina Palm (2007), a Belgian film directed by Sam Garbarski starring ’60s icon Marianne Faithfull, a grandmother takes a job in a London sex parlor “wanking” men through a red glory hole to pay for her dying grandson’s experimental treatment in Australia. Faithfull’s character, Maggie, also finds romance with the establishment’s owner (aptly described by Toronto Star film critic Philip Marchand as “the male version of the good-hearted prostitute). None of these is an American film.
The cognitive dissonance produced by these three films inheres in a cultural narrative that to one degree or another aligns a woman’s sexual nature with her relative worth in the reproductive (physical and ideological) machinery of domestic life. Women of childbearing years, mothers, wives, all participate (in fact or in theory) in the production, socialization, and regulation of family life. An elderly widow (or a spinster) has little reproductive or domestic capital of any nature, nor is she expected to. What constitutes “elderly,” as I have suggested earlier, is not so much a matter of age, but of an external bearing that renounces the possibility of sexual desire or desirability. So, while Hiam Abbass’ Lilia, in Satin Rouge, is still a vital and attractive woman, her drab demeanor and limited range of activities: dusting her already immaculate apartment, communing with her dead husband, and worrying over her nearly grown daughter, align her categorically with The Mother’s May or Irina Palm’s Maggie even though the latter two characters are older and far dowdier. What renders her narrative particularly subversive is the film’s setting in North Africa. What is denied to May and Maggie by virtue of their aging, shapeless bodies and grandmotherly status is similarly taboo to Lilia on account of the restrictive social conditions affecting women in the Arab world, generally, despite Tunisia’s more enlightened social milieu.
The space of transgression in Satin Rouge and Irina Palm is the demimonde of cabaret andsex shop. Ironically, both sites are antithetical to the domestic but, at the same time, replicate the social relations around which the domestic is organized: women serving men. The effect of this duplication (as opposed to reimagining) is to trap the films’ protagonists within familiar Madonna/whore territory. Even May’s narrative, which does not prescribe an exterior site within which to experiment with the taboo, devolves into an image of ritual servitude as Darren, her lover, makes a crude demand for oral sex and she kneels obediently before him. That said, Darren’s own failure to live up to the patriarchal ideal renders him the structural equivalent to May. The films, therefore, remain beholden to the same old paradigm even as they appear to break new ground.
The demimonde is represented as a colorful and anti-bourgeois alternative to the dry and pallid domestic sphere where the films’ protagonists are subject to surveillance by family, neighbors, and friends. The intrusive quality of these social relations has everything to do with the widowed, therefore single, status of these characters. In both films, but much more so in Satin Rouge, the demimonde is an idealized site. The dancers, whom the film identifies as “artists” (though they are also prostitutes) are not young or beautiful, but nevertheless attractive and vibrant in their gaudy street clothes. They warmly embrace Lilia and encourage her to exult in her talent, inviting her into their sisterhood, and offering her a sense of community that is denied her in her domestic isolation. Likewise, in Irina Palm, the sex parlor is presided over by a mensch with a brusque exterior. When he threatens to hunt Maggie down and kill her if she doesn’t keep up her end of the bargain, we sense his heart just isn’t in it. Both Lilia and Maggie are “slumming;” they are allowed to explore controversial modes of self-realization without ever sinking into the moral abyss of prostitution even as they are mentored by women for whom there is no alternative, bourgeois or otherwise, to the cabaret or the sex parlor. Lilia and Maggie come to flaunt their association with the forbidden, thumbing their noses at the world of social rectitude, with its ethic of propriety and social conformity. Given the juxtaposition of domesticity and the demimonde, the films appear to endorse the trangressive choices made by these protagonists. In the end, however, they validate rather than interrogate patriarchal notions about the feminine, which circle tirelessly around the Madonna/whore binary.
The fact of motherhood is integral to the moral equation that is central to each of the films, particularly, in the light of sacrifice. Satin Rouge and The Mother feature, on the one hand, offspring who, in some ways, have a far lower tolerance for impropriety than their wayward mothers, a refreshing reversal of the coming-of-age narrative and, on the other, mothers whose newly discovered capacity to experience pleasure ranges toward the perverse, insofar as they betray their own daughters. The Mother goes so far as to undermine any normative sense of the transparency between biological motherhood and the maternal. Irina Palm’s Maggie, on the other hand, chooses to court disgrace and filial disapproval for a “motherly” cause and, her goal having been accomplished, to cast her lot, finally, on the side of disgrace to the extent that she can (and will) “domesticate” the demimonde.
In each film, there is a sense of “the fortunate fall” (the notion, suggested by Milton in Paradise Lost, that the expulsion of Adam and Eve from the Garden of Eden, presaged a greater good.) Not, of course, that the prelapsarian world of Lilia, May, and Maggie has much to recommend it, other than the absence of social and familiar reprobation. The plunge into “sin” is a means to undermine the disciplinary power of communal judgment, allowing the films’ protagonists to experience varying kinds of success, admiration, and selfhood outside the domestic sphere where, their mission having been accomplished, or nearly so, they have been rendered obsolete. Redemption is mediated by the discovery of a particular skill or artistic potential: dancing, drawing, even wanking. Paradoxically, as I argued earlier, the work pursued by Lilia and Maggie outside the domestic sphere is continuous with their work inside it. The Madonna and the whore are two sides of the same coin. For Lilia and May, sexuality and artistry form part of a matrix that is as incendiary as it is liberating. In the end, Lilia chooses to remain in her “ring of fire,” while May will be forced to sublimate. That these outcomes may not be an unequivocal good does not detract from the films’ embrace of the paradox.
Satin Rouge, the first feature-length film of Raja Amari, a Tunisian expatriate living in Paris, turns out to be more complicated than it first appears to be. A fable about the sexual and psychological liberation of a middle-aged widow from the stultifying routines and standards prescribed by the community, the narrative ends up in the murky waters of moral ambiguity. As Lilia’s daughter, Salma, becomes increasingly independent and secretive about her life, including her sexual relationship with a drummer, Chokri, Lilia too embarks on a secret life when she follows him down a staircase one day. To her shock, she sees what appears to be her daughter, a dark silhouette against the orange background of a nightclub. That night, her daughter calls from a friend’s house. There is a party going on, and Salma tells her mother she will be staying the night. Not believing her daughter, Lilia returns to the club, believing that her daughter has lied about her whereabouts. It will not take long for Lilia to be seduced by the joyfully sensuous communion of dancers, singers, musicians, and spectators. Having nurtured her own secret skill as a belly dancer, Lilia soon finds herself the star of the show. Chokri, unaware of her identity, is deeply attracted to her while she, fully aware of his relationship with her daughter, at first resists and then finally seduces him. He breaks it off when Salma agrees to introduce him to her mother. In that meeting, he is clearly discomfited while Lilia coolly promises to be an excellent mother-in-law. The final sequence takes place at the wedding, where, improbably, Lila’s two worlds come together to celebrate the occasion. Lilia dances before the wedded couple in a sexy red dress, while the newlyweds, look on joylessly. She appears to be in her own world. Is the film a celebration of Lilia’s independence from “patriarchy” or a cautionary tale that confirms patriarchal fears about uncontained female desire (or both?)
Let’s begin with the idea of the maternal. Clearly, Lilia possesses all the virtues of motherhood when the film opens. She has abnegated any possibility of her own personal happiness in favor of a joyless widowhood devoted, mostly, to a zealous concern with her daughter’s coming of age and the memory of her husband. The daughter has become secretive, deceptive, and impatient with home life as Lilia becomes increasingly irrelevant (other than, perhaps, modeling for Salma what parental control looks like.) Lilia’s concern with dusting and straightening her already clean and orderly household items is further evidence of her near redundancy. As if to reinforce the need for surveillance, her visiting neighbor complains about finding lipstick in the purse of her thirteen year-old daughter. And Lilia is fiercely maternal as she makes her way into the cabaret in search of Salma. Men leer at her, belly dancers writhe and shimmy, music and smoke fill the room. Overcome with the sensual overload, she faints. Once Lilia becomes involved with her new life, which, at first, involves doing alternations for Folla, the star dancer, she neglects her daughter in various ways. On the one hand, she sidelines her promise to mend a dress for Salma in favor of doing work for Folla; on the other, she shows little concern when Salma asks to sleep at her friend’s house — where before she had been suspicious — and this because she is planning her own rendez-vous with Chokri. Her consent to the marriage, too, appears questionable, if not irresponsible, based solely on the “disreputable” nature of his profession. The fact that he has betrayed Lilia’s daughter bears no further comment as regards his fidelity, though here local custom might sanction such male privilege.
Lilia’s inner transformation is reflected in her outward appearance. In the opening sequences she is wearing a dull gray housedress reminiscent of something an inmate would wear. It is a wrap-around dress that she keeps pinned closed at the neckline, a sign of her modesty. When she goes out, she exchanges that for a modest beige plaid, also pinned at the neck. Soon she is wearing a red dress with a floral print. She also discards the pin. One early morning she returns home in a sexy dress borrowed from Folla. Then she gets her hair done and buys stylish high-heeled shoes. The quintessence of her inner transformation is the purchase of red satin lingerie. At the same time, she never adopts the garish outer attire of her sister dancers, and this is an important distinction, allowing the character to maintain the duality that both comforts and disturbs. There are other indicators of transformation as well. In the early scenes, the windows to her flat are always closed. It is claustrophobic, and Lilia appears as a prisoner. After she surrenders to the sensual pleasures of the cabaret, the windows are open.
Amari has stated that her film illustrates the integral place of social hypocrisy in Arab countries wherein the highly restrictive nature of social life leads everyone to pursue a double life. This is certainly evident in the film, as both Lilia and Salma lead lives that allow them to conform superficially to social norms while pursuing their own ends in secrecy. Lilia’s growing need to satisfy her desires, however, begins to disturb the separation. The symbol of the polluting nature of the demimonde is the odor of cigarettes (a cabaret staple.) One morning a neighbor tells Lilia that Salma must be smoking because she smelled cigarettes in the hallway. Of course, it is Lilia who has brought in the invasive stink. The separation breaks down completely when she knowingly takes her daughter’s boyfriend for her lover, with poisonous results. Chokri, who has, presumably, deflowered the young and willing Salma, does the “right” thing. The pair, having committed themselves to an out-of-wedlock sexual relationship, consecrate and “legalize” their status as lovers. So even as a younger generation bows to the greater moral code, Lilia subverts it, possibly undermining the marriage itself. Indeed, one morning Salma tells her mother of a nightmare she has had the night before about “horrible things coming out of the sea . . . sticky creatures, like snakes.” Chokri lives by the sea. You don’t have to wear a burka to find this troublesome. The greater implication, of course, is that female sexuality, unchecked, has the power to upend the institutional stability of society.
Upon first viewing, I read the film’s ending and Lilia’s enigmatic performance before her (relatively) dour daughter and son-in-law as a celebration of her independence from the institutions of marriage and widowhood. Everyone, other than the bride and groom, seems to be having a great time. Indeed, the final sequence appears to blur the line between the proper and the scandalous, as Lilia’s religiously devout brother from the village shares the social space of celebration with belly dancers/whores. Amari herself, though, suggests that Lilia’s consent to the marriage could signify either her renunciation of Chokri or her intention to keep him close at hand, a disturbing outcome. Watching the closing sequence a few more times, I feel a good case might be made for the latter. If female sexuality, unchecked, is seen to embrace the clandestine love affair between a mother and her daughter’s husband, the film is an argument for, rather than against, repression. This is ironic, considering that the writer and director of the film is a woman.
Another disturbing aspect of the film is the extent to which it needs to idealize both the cabaret and the other dancers in order to maintain the dignity of its protagonist. In order for Lilia to surrender herself to the pleasure of dancing, scantily clad, for a room full of men, this being the gateway to even greater and more taboo pleasures, the site of transgression must in some way be redemptive. Though there appear to be women patrons, the cabaret is overwhelmingly a place for men. So are cafes in most Arab countries, women being confined to the domain of the private. But unlike a strip club or similar establishment in the West, this cabaret is about a communal ecstasy sponsored by the artistry of musicians, singers, and dancers. I know this place (or its New York equivalent, at least as it existed in the 1960s), and I can vouch for the overwhelming excitement of music and song that spill over into dance. I deeply believe that sexual titillation is secondary to the transcendent alchemy produced by voice, body, instrument and spectator united in ritualistic abandon. I also know that part of the charm of such “dives” is that one can walk away. It is not a site of labor for the “client,” as it is for those who earn their living there. That is to say, it is redemptive to the extent that one can walk away. The belly dancers in Satin Rouge strike me as unreasonably wholesome, given the necessary degradations of their “other” job. That the dancers are also hookers is revealed in a sequence during which Lilia is propositioned by a wealthy patron who assumes that, like the other girls, she is available for sexual favors. She is saved from a possible assault by Chokri. Having been admonished by the cabaret owner to be “nice” and not “play the shy virgin,” she had proclaimed that she was an “artist.” The owner says of the interested client, “he is too, in a way. He pays well.” Bellydancing for an audience of men is a dicey affair.
As I have suggested, the dancers form a sisterhood that both encourages and nurtures Lilia’s development. Lilia is the very image of steely reserve when she descends the steps for the first time in search of Salma. When she passes out, Folla and the other dancers minister to her like sisters. A chance meeting between the two women at the bazaar results in an unlikely friendship that will lead Lilia back to the cabaret. When Folla catches her in the dressing room dancing in a borrowed costume, she urges her onto the dance floor. At first, Lilia is reluctant, but the dancers draw her out and dance with her. It is like a ritual of initiation. Folla becomes her close friend and teaches her how to perform, rather than simply dance for herself, so that she can be hired at the club. The dancers are not jealous when Lilia becomes the new star and, indeed, Folla intercedes on Lilia’s behalf when she learns she is being underpaid. Folla’s generosity seems odd in the light of an earlier scene, during which she tells Lilia that soon all the dancers will be let go and replaced by cheaper ones. I am in no position to question the representation of these women as liberated and joyful subjects, though it strains credulity, as do the wholly benign relations between dancers and clientele (until the scene referenced above.) It may be that Amari is reproducing what she found on location, but I tend to doubt it. In any event, she does imbue the place with enough magic to make Lilia’s transformation utterly believable. Sisterhood notwithstanding, the film takes great pains to establish Lilia’s difference from the other dancers. What distinguishes her is not only a matter of social class or respectability, but an effect of her physical appearance as well. Lilia is a beautiful and refined-looking woman (even in full costume), whereas the dancers are, by comparison, older, tartier, and more coarse looking. They appear “fallen,” even as Lilia takes her place among them as a “class act.” If she is not a whore in the diegetical world of the movie, however, she certainly stumbles into that domain from a theoretical perspective.
Lilia’s fortunate fall enables her to restore a sense of vitality and passion to her life. To do so, however, she abandons propriety and, through her actions, repudiates the “maternal” insofar as that status requires, if not self-denial, at least a degree of sacrifice. In Irina Palm, Maggie’s “fall” is itself the sacrifice. After she learns that Ollie, her dying grandson, has been accepted into a free treatment program in Australia but that aside from the treatment, all other expenses are to borne by the family, Maggie sets about looking for work. The catch is, time is running out. In six weeks Ollie will be too weak to travel. Maggie has already sacrificed the family home to pay for Ollie’s treatments. She now lives in a simple flat. Her former neighbors, a well-appointed circle of haute bourgeois matrons secure in their suburban dens, are her only friends. When asked by her son, Tom, why she continues to visit them, she replies, “They’re not all bad. Something to do, I suppose.” The contrast between down-at-heels Maggie, a self-described “dull middle-aged frump” and her stylish friends, together with her lack of any stimulating means of passing time, are an indication of her material and social impoverishment. She is, however, rich in maternal devotion.
Desperate to earn money, Maggie takes to the streets of London. Having been turned down for a loan at a bank and scorned at an employment office (no skills, no work experience) she wanders into Soho, where she notices a “Hostess Required” sign. Like Lilia, she wanders down a seedy red staircase. Maggie is cursorily directed to the office where she meets Miki, the eastern European proprietor. Her anomalous presence has gone unnoticed because Miki’s “assistant” never bothers to look up when Maggie inquires about the job. In a sequence played for laughs, Maggie’s naiveté and Miki’s fumbling attempts to explain that hostess is a “euphemism” for whore set up a nifty push-pull between the characters. When it comes to light that Maggie’s hands could be the key to a new career, the manner of their use must be explained to her. The comedy continues when another working girl, Luisa, an immigrant who tells Maggie she needs to “separate” the two spheres of her life, shows her the ropes. Gradually Maggie, renamed “Irina Palm,” becomes the toast of the sexual underworld. Having earned enough money to secure the plane fare to Australia, she presents Tom with the cash but refuses to tell him how she got it. He decides to follow her and when he discovers her “secret,” he is furious. He threatens to return the cash and tells Maggie that unless she severs her ties with the sex parlor, she will never see her grandson again. She acquiesces. Maggie’s dour daughter-in-law, Sarah, attempts to intercede. Meanwhile, a budding romance has been blooming between Maggie and Miki, so Maggie’s exile means another kind of sacrifice. There is a final scene of reconciliation between Maggie and her son, as tickets for all are purchased. However, at the last minute, Maggie tells Tom and Sarah to go without her. She returns to Sexy World, where the despondent Miki, seeing her in the door with her suitcase, rushes to embrace her and they kiss.
Superficially, Irina Palm seems to bear a certain resemblance to Satin Rouge, in that both protagonists (prim widows) stumble into a demimonde that is both redemptive and scandalous. Not only that, they both have a special talent that propels them into stardom in their respective domains. Both films juxtapose the randy underworld and the drab domestic life of a woman — a mother — whose function is, or is becoming, marginal. Maggie is resented by Sarah, who appears to feel that Tom has not fully cut the apron strings. Aside from the card games with her haughty friends, which are themselves a trial to be endured, she doesn’t have much going on. Indeed, it’s hard to find Maryann Faithfull at all in this rather severely arrayed clump of flesh who tromps around in sensible-looking winter boots. She’s not well educated (signified by her lack of familiarity with the term “euphemism”) and doesn’t appear to have any interests apart from her grandson. At least Lilia was a seamstress and had a passion for dancing. The futile job search reveals her to be unsuitable for any type of meaningful employment.
The film’s opening shot pans in on a pastoral view of the picturesque village where Maggie lives. Expository sequences, besides laying out the crisis of Ollie’s fatal illness, provide a view of Maggie’s relations with her snobby friends, principal among them, Jane (Jenny Agutter), who is bitchy and condescending. Such women project a stereotypical image of smug, self-satisfied, middle-class existence reeking of pretension and social correctness. So, when Maggie stumbles into Sexy World, believing that a “hostess” was someone who made tea and cleaned up, it’s entirely believable. When she discovers what kind of employment is being offered, it is only her maternal bona fides that persuade her to stay. This is the nature of her sacrifice: to hold her nose and soldier through the impossibly grotesque (if comical) task of “wanking” off the men who insert their erect penises into the red hole. All of this is discretely hidden from view. We merely see the hand, primed with lubricant, an arm in motion, a look of dismay, and a discarded tissue. But Maggie does more than exemplify the lengths to which a properly “maternal” spirit will go to save a grandchild, she transforms her working space into a model of propriety. She shows up to work on the first full day with all her gear: a matronly apron, comfy slippers, and a thermos of tea. Later on she will bring pictures to hand on the wall and a small vase of flowers. Bemused (and charmed) Miki asks her if she is planning on redecorating the whole club. For Maggie domesticates the space of sex for hire, rendering it clinically sterile (metaphorically, of course) and correct. What is more, she further separates herself from the task by reading while she wanks. Maggie herself is never tainted by the sordid nature of her workplace nor, indeed, of the work itself. And this, despite the fact that she gains a following so impressive that even Miki tests her out (unbeknownst to her at the time) just to see what all the fuss is about. In one of the funnier sequences, she needs to be treated by the Sexy World’s on-call physician who diagnoses her with a case of “penis elbow.” Maggie remains above it all.
Maggie is mentored by Luisa, a young single mother, who, like Maggie, has no other prospects for employment. She is the only other sex worker that Maggie interacts with. Like Lilia and Folla. they strike up a friendship, which, in all respects, appears far more genuine than that which she shares with her bourgeois buddies at home. Bonding over drinks at the local pub, they share their stories. Unfortunately, Maggie’s success comes at the cost of Luisa’s job, and she is fired. No one lines up at her booth anymore. Maggie fights for her with Miki, to no avail, and her attempt to keep the friendship is rebuked. “You took my clients, you fucking tourist,” Luisa exclaims to Maggie who has come to her modest flat to make amends. She slams the door in Maggie’s face. Maggie has no contact at all with the strippers and lap dancers. Indeed, their presence in the film is wholly marginalized except to remind the viewer from time to time that this really is a sex parlor.
This protagonist does not undergo a physical metamorphosis. She remains true to herself in all respects, and it is on the basis of her “genuine” and naïve self that Miki falls for her. In that respect, Maggie is the great civilizer, even as she wanks her way to notoriety as Irina Palm. Lilia, by contrast, loses her veneer of domestic propriety, plunging headlong into a new and radically different self. Maggie’s power — her ability to bend the wayward to the upright — derives, I believe, from maternal sacrifice, lending her an aura of Teflon saintliness. On the other hand, she gains a great deal of self-confidence from her newly discovered skill and equal measures of independence and bewilderment. She confides to Miki that she has been approached by the owner of Sex-o-Rama, the biggest and most extravagant sex shop in town, to train and manage the entire “wanking” operation; he even offers her a cut of the earnings. This, she says, would turn her into a “madam,” clearly, a line she would be loath to cross, even for her grandson. Maggie’s transformation, her “redemption,” consists in forging an identity beyond the domestic sphere and her roles as mother and grandmother through mastery of a “dark” (though not in the sense of occult) art. Sexy World is a contained space of transgression that enables her to do this.
In addition to its focus on Maggie’s self-realization, Irina Palm, like Satin Rouge, offers a pointed rebuke to the tyranny of the community standard represented by her obnoxious prying friends, her surveilling son, and the Village Shop, the local bodega, where customers are all subject to the scrutiny of the shopkeepers and habitués. Like all traditional villages, gossip is the staff of life. In London, on the contrary, there is anonymity. In the underworld, she finds friendship and a sense of belonging. In the village, she must conceal her “job” from prying eyes. Maggie’s so-called friends are catty and patronizing. Once she has been forced to retire from Sexy World and is free to socialize, Jane goads her into revealing her secret. “For God’s sake, Mags, it’s you we’re talking about; it’s not as though it’s anything remotely interesting,” she exclaims. However, when Maggie decides to let the secret out, it is she who exhibits a wry sense of superiority to her suburban friends as she tells them, “I wank off men. I’m Irina Palm. I’m the best.” Their hypocrisy is revealed as shock and disapproval turn to curiosity and titillation. Jane’s particular vindictiveness is exposed at the end of the film when she announces, in the Village Shop, that given Maggie’s “new profession,” she has been forced to find a more “salubrious” card partner. Maggie then reveals that she has known all along that Jane had been having an affair with her husband. Her husband confessed the infidelity before he died. By any measure of competing disgraces, Jane’s certainly suggests the greater moral culpability.
Maggie’s son, too, renounces her. In his outrage, he fails at first to comprehend her work in Sexy World as an act of sacrifice. He accuses his mother of being a whore and cannot view her actions in any terms other than moral failure. He is so bound up in pain and frustration that he puts his disgust and shock ahead of his own son. That is to say, he puts his own concerns about the moral fitness of his son’s grandmother before his son’s medical and emotional needs. His intolerance, though, is repudiated through implicit contrast, not only with Maggie’s saintliness, but also through the turnaround of the hostile Sarah. Imbued, as well, with maternal values that privilege action (putting oneself on the line) over appearances, she thanks Maggie and offers her a plane ticket to joint them, reassuring her that Tom will come around. He does.
With the return of Maggie to Sexy World at the end of the film, what are we to make of her “moral” predicament? She has accomplished her goal of securing the money for her grandson’s trip to Australia. Presumably, the treatment will be a success. She doesn’t have to wank anymore. But by opting out of the trip, she is symbolically removing herself from the nuclear family as well where she really didn’t belong to begin with. She will now live for herself instead of her loved ones, and she will do so on her own terms. That means a return to Miki and Sexy World. What appeared to be the scandalous premise of the film turns out to be a revalidation of patriarchal values insofar as Maggie (aside from the precise nature of her work) is an exemplar of the self-sacrificing mother and “angel of the hearth” whose goodness and essential purity redound upon Miki and, even, Sexy World. We are not encouraged to ask what Tom’s reaction might be when he and his family return. The “good mother,” Maggie is rewarded at the end of the film with the plenitude of both filial and romantic love.
The Mother radically undoes the link between biological motherhood and “the maternal” in its daring representation of sexuality and aging. Its protagonist, May, does not stumble into a site of radical difference as Lilia and Maggie do. She creates a site of transgression within the domestic itself. “Upstairs,” in the spare room of her son’s house, where she has come to stay after the death of her husband, she enjoys afternoons of passionate sex with her daughter’s married lover (Daniel Craig) who is, perhaps, half her age. May and Toots, her husband, have had limited dealings with her children and grandchildren for many years. On the first night of a rare family visit to London, where their son and daughter now reside, Toots dies of a heart attack, leaving May existentially stranded. Her dysfunctional daughter, Paula, blames her for her mess of a life and May, herself, is overly critical of Paula’s choices, one of which is her relationship with the socially marginal Darren who is married. Bobby, May’s prosperous son, lives in a relatively large house (May remarks that it feels like Buckingham Palace) and is always preoccupied with “business;” his children are obnoxious and his wife, Helen, has just opened up a cashmere shop which is slowly bankrupting him. Darren is doing work on Bobby’s house. When Paula asks May to discretely question him concerning his feelings about her, May’s tentative attempts to do so quickly turn into erotic obsession. Darren is a hunky ne’er do well. Both charming and edgy, he strikes up an unconventional friendship with May, revealing a caring and sensitive side that is at odds with his external qualities. She asks him to “take her upstairs,” and their affair begins. The sexually explicit nature of the love scenes, including Anne Reid’s nudity, is both compelling and disturbing, producing a different kind of cognitive dissonance than does either Satin Rouge or Irina Palm. The affair is revealed when May’s sketchpad containing sexually explicit drawings of herself and Darren is inadvertently discovered by the siblings. After that things quickly unravel. May returns “home,” to the house she has considered a death sentence but finds redemption in the creative process, as she sets off with her drawing materials. It must be said that The Mother is devoid of any likeable character.
Given its title, The Mother implicitly calls upon us to consider its protagonist’s particular “fall” and what relation that might bear to the maternal. Certainly, May bears little relation to either Lilia or Maggie, both of whom are in active contact with the day-to-day goings on of their offspring. Her son and daughter are both adults and live in London. A condition of estrangement is suggested. May and her ailing husband live alone in a suburban dwelling where she helps him negotiate daily tasks such as dressing and putting his shoes on. The expository sequences make clear that it has been a long time since May and Toots have seen their children. Their irrelevance is signified by the rude disregard with which they are treated by their grandchildren and the fact that both their son and daughter-in-law are thoughtlessly running off to their jobs without so much as a conversation.
The site of May’s prelapsarian existence, the marital domicile, is an absence at the heart of the film, though the opening and closing sequences take place there. The action of the movie occurs in London, far from May’s home, which she shuns once her husband dies. The void represented by the abandoned family home is revealed to be a breeding ground for resentment and dysfunction. What we learn, over the course of the film, is that May was unhappy, unfulfilled, and unable, given the times, to find any outlet for self-realization. She was a relatively well off and obedient housewife with no great instinct or passion for motherhood. One evening, May accompanies Paula to the writing workshop she leads. When Paula instructs the class to write a sketch based upon a sense memory from childhood, May writes and reads out loud the following:
I’d put the children to bed at last. It was such a struggle. I’d hate them by the end of the day, and thought I was the only parent who felt that way. They’d be screaming upstairs, throwing things out of their cots. I’d put on my coat and shut the front door behind me. And I’d go out and walk across the fields for miles, as I do now. Or I’d go to a pub where no one knew me. I made sure I’d be back before my husband. But they’d be asleep at last. I wanted to kill myself out of guilt. I still haven’t recovered from those cries. What is it about those cries?
May’s inability to fulfill the demands of her role as “angel of the hearth'” drives her out of the home and fills her with unspeakable guilt and shame. This is her overriding memory.
The substance of her relationship with Paula revolves around Paula’s realization, in the course of therapy, that she has never felt loved. “You hardly touched me. You never praised or encouraged me. I don’t believe you ever thought I could accomplish anything. I never felt valued, Mom. That is why I’m doing it with a married man on the fucking floor,” she tells May, accusingly. May, for her part, is infuriatingly passive during these scenes, offering unconvincing denials while unable, at the same time, to reassure and nurture. Paula is a failed writer, an unwed mother, and lives a careless kind of day-to-day existence. She does not quite believe in her own deluded hopes that Darren will leave his wife and marry her, but she cannot bring herself to leave him. May, of course, takes comfort in the notion that Paula will break it off, but Paula will not oblige.
We would like Paula to assume some responsibility for her own life choices and yet cannot help but feel her emotional devastation. When May’s affair with Darren has come to light and Paula asks her, “Do you love me?” May cannot even look at her daughter as she replies, “Of course I love you. You’re my daughter.” Fortunately, Paula’s child is a boy.
Bobby is materially much better off than Paula, but his life is no richer than hers. His attitude towards his mother is not particularly warm either. He never has time to be a “son.” Relations within his own family are frosty and lacking in emotional intimacy. May remarks to Darren that a younger generation of women has so many more options. Their worlds are not circumscribed by home and family. And yet in Paula and Helen, the film offers us no evidence that their lives are any more fulfilling or their families better off. Maybe we are intended, simply, to view dysfunction as the fruit of the poisonous tree. That is to say, Bobby and May, having been poorly nurtured, lack the means to construct a nurturing environment for their own families. It is ironic, then, that on the night Toots dies, the only time we see the family united, he waxes nostalgic about the good times they have shared. He raises his glass and offers a toast, “To family.” It is appropriate that the film kills him off, so that the truth of the family may be revealed.
May’s life as a sexual being first comes to light when, after hints of her growing attraction to Darren, she shares with him that she had had a brief affair with another man, a local antiques dealer. She had made up her mind to run away with him, but then decided she couldn’t “upset anyone” and never saw the man again. This brief anecdote sets the tone for her request to be taken upstairs. It also suggests her determination to never again base her choices on what will upset people. We get an earlier glimpse of this new attitude when her son tells her not to be “difficult” following the death of Toots. “Why not?” she asks. “Why shouldn’t I be difficult?” The sex scenes between May and Darren bring to light the difficulties of representing such an unusual coupling in consumable form. That is, in the form least likely to produce an unwelcome (as opposed to merely disturbing) cognitive dissonance. In the first of two such scenes, May and Darren lie side by side on the bed. Darren is obviously stimulating her with his hand under the covers. May climaxes. In the second, graphic, scene, the couple are shown having sex “doggie” style. At no time are they face to face, and I think the absence of that immediacy is the film’s way of letting us off the hook. When May and Darren first face each other in the bedroom, fully clothed, he standing and she seated on the bed, she asks him, “What do you see? A shapeless old lump?” He does not reassure. “Do you want to touch me?” he asks. “You can touch me.” “Will you touch me?” she asks, in return. “If you’ll let me,” he replies. There is in all this indirection, a diffidence that goes beyond that of characters in an awkward and untoward situation, but extends to the spectator as well. One can’t get past the notion that Darren is fond of May and that he is making the supreme sacrifice on her behalf. As a sacrifice, their sexual acts are consumable.
May grows more and more attached to Darren. As she is forced to confront the continued intimacy of Darren and Paula, May’s obsession becomes stronger. Her jealousy and possessiveness lead her to harp on Paula’s unfulfilled promise to break it off. Two particularly disturbing scenes tap into the cultural unease with which mature sexuality is regarded.
Following Paula’s discovery of the affair between Darren and May (who is never directly confronted by either of her two children), she suggests a double date between Darren and herself and May and Bruce, an elderly gentleman who is one of her writing students and who has expressed an unwelcome interest in her mother. The evening ends badly, with Paula flaunting her sexually charged relationship with Darren, and May running off into the streets of London in despair. Bruce tracks her down and brings her back to his apartment. He takes her to bed, where he grossly forces himself on her. The disgusting nature of his sexual performance is foreshadowed earlier when food particles remain on his lips after he has eaten. Of course, we are meant to juxtapose the grotesque gropings of Bruce with the sensitivity and passion of Darren, thus confirming that sex is redemptive when practiced by the young and attractive. It is a difficult scene to watch.
The final sequence between May and Darren is equally disturbing. Darren has just been fired by Bobby for failing to finish the work on time. He has a meltdown. High on cocaine and nearly delirious with personal failure, he asks, “how about a bit of rub-a-dub, Mother?” “Please don’t call me that,” May admonishes him. “Why don’t you just fucking suck it?” he responds. She kneels before him, ready to do his bidding but disturbed by his untoward behavior. “Darling,” she says, “I’ll do anything, you know that, but please talk to me.” He abruptly zips up his fly as if to indicate that this was one demand too many on his unraveling life. May had earlier offered to buy Darren a ticket and pay for him to go away somewhere with her. He now asks for the money, and she naively thinks he prepared to accept her offer. “On the plane, with you?” he asks contemptuously. Then he calls her Paula, by mistake. “Paula? Don’t you even know who I am?” she asks. He replies in a torrent of rage:
I don’t give a shit who you are, woman. I’m sick of all you fucking women just pawing and clawing me! Why doesn’t someone do something for me occasionally, for a change? What am l? Some sort of fucking whore to listen to you and to fuck you . . . to make you feel all right?
And so ends their affair. Is Darren a sadistic cad who never cared for May? It’s not entirely clear, but her humiliation, from which she may deduce the delusional nature not only of their relationship, but also of own desirability in his eyes, confirms her status as “a shapeless old lump” who has crossed too many lines. Taking into account May’s sexual daring with (and demoralization by) a young stud and her vulgar misuse at the hands of an age-appropriate suitor, the film appears to suggest that, once past one’s sexual prime, bending desire into art rather than fulfilling it in the flesh is the more salubrious way forward. Art and sex form a highly combustible alloy, as it is Maggie’s graphic renderings of her sexual activities with Darren that precipitate the film’s denouement.
The fortunate fall. May’s attraction to Darren is, at first, affirmative. Like Lilia, but to a lesser extent, her appearance changes. She becomes more attractive, more assertive, more alive. She wears brighter colors, more feminine clothing, and starts taking an interest in things outside her narrow world. She visits a museum, goes atop the London Eye (a neat metaphor for living in a bubble high above the real world), and starts drawing. The “artistic,” as is frequently the case in popular culture, comes to represent the anti-bourgeois. Darren, too, is referred to by Paula as “artistic,” and Darren is the anti-bourgeois par excellence, which makes him the perfect foil for May. May’s transgression, like Lilia’s, is a powerful act of parental betrayal motivated by uncontrolled sexual desire. But unlike Lilia’s, hers is, if not benign, at least not profoundly destructive. That is to say, May’s transgression changes nothing; it merely finalizes the dissolution of a family that was not a family. It relieves her of all relational burdens that are insistent in a role to which she always felt alien. May and her children are left, each to his or her own devices, to construct — or reconstruct — an identity as opposed to a status. While it is not clear whether her children will succeed, or even attempt such a process, May is now equipped with an outward orientation that will more fully engage her with the world, both as a keen observer and creator. Sexuality has been the key to her remaking. The sun drenched scenes of lovemaking, May’s face plunged into the sink full of water following her first orgasm with Darren, the intimations of intimacy with which their relationship is imbued, these all point to the idea of initiation.
The Mother disturbs. “Dear God,” says, May, surrendering to her infatuation, “let us be alive before we’re dead.” Why, we ask, does being alive have to come at the expense of one’s child, one’s dignity, one’s personal integrity? It is in the nature, I guess, of transgression that it radically undermines the idea of totality. Transgression, let us say, “takes no prisoners.” Is the film an indictment of patriarchy? Unlike Satin Rouge, it does not so much validate the notion that female sexuality is inherently destructive as suggest the nihilistic capacity of a spirit deformed. May has come of age during the conformist 1950s, which was particularly hard on those individuals who, for a variety of reasons, could not adapt themselves to middle-class domestic life. In the end, May’s spirit has freed itself, but not without leaving a swath of emotional devastation in its wake.
It seems worthwhile to conclude with a second look at opening and concluding sequences, as these provide good visual cues to the way each film resolves — or fails to resolve — the contradiction between “following one’s bliss” and the innately sacrificial nature of the “good mother.” Such sequences both contain the narrative arc and circle vertiginously around the idea of the maternal, as it is constructed, reconstructed, and transgressed in the popular imagination: Madonna and whore, both/and, either/or. Satin Rouge begins in Lilia’s prison-like apartment where, arrayed in a dull uniform-like housedress, she is seen dusting and straightening surfaces that already shine. The closing sequences take place outside, at her daughter’s wedding. The frame is crowded with celebrants from both her public and clandestine worlds, but the focal point is Lilia, made up and radiant, in a low-cut, bright red dress dancing seductively before the married couple. Her placement is most often between them, but at one point she seems to be dancing for Chokri, as she has done in the cabaret. Lilia can be seen as trading in motherhood for something not quite moral but far more colorful and appealing. The film, I think, wants to have it both ways. Irina Palm begins with an establishing shot that pans in on idyllic English village and ends in a sex parlor. These sequences superficially parallel one another in that they move their protagonists out of bourgeois or domestic space into a sexually charged underworld (literally in the closing sequence of Irina Palm and by suggestion in Satin Rouge.) Irina Palm validates the maternal as a principle of self-sacrifice, even as it projects a life outside the domestic for its protagonist. Satin Rouge, on the other hand, shows the vulnerability of the maternal, and, indeed, the whole social fabric, to the destructive power of female sexuality. Bliss is a qualified social good. The opening sequence of The Mother, with its focus on the couple in bed, here a symbol both of institutional stability and failed intimacy, presages another bed in a pristine white room, bathed in afternoon sunlight, where May’s adulterous and morally perverse affair with Darren is both a harbinger of destruction and, at the same time, the only human connection in the film. The final sequence returns May to the marital bedroom where the film began. She unpacks, but quickly picks up her sketchpad and goes out, an individual cut loose from the bonds of marriage and motherhood, free to make art rather than children. This film desanctifies motherhood entirely, but limits the terms in which bliss may be realized.
I began with the notion of cognitive dissonance, the discomfort we experience when we are confronted with facts or ideas that are inconsistent with our own way of thinking. In our desire to resolve this tension and restore cognitive “harmony,” we may adjust one or more of our attitudes or beliefs, resulting in growth or distortion. Until that resolution occurs, we may squirm, or we may laugh, or we may simply turn away. Cognitive dissonance can be productive, but it can also be a distraction. Aesthetic objects often expose the contradictions to which evolving and competing cultural paradigms give rise, and it is always worthwhile to uncover them.
Note: I’d like to thank my good friend, psychoanalyst, and author Sophia Richman for introducing me to these unusual films.