Dir.: Noël Herpé; Documentary with Noel Herpe, Michelle Herpé; France 2019, 103 min.
Writer/director Noel Herpé (Fantasmes et Fantômes) stages a soul-searching duel with is mother Michelle, translator, theatre director and actress. Noël is also known for his work as a film historian, particular on Eric Rohmer. In front of the camera the two wrestle with their love for each other, the quarrels often turning vitriolic. He calls Michelle a witch with the face of human mother.
Michelle Voslinsky was in Paris in 1940, being Jewish, she had to hide from the Germans. After losing her mother the age of nine “she felt not entitled to a life like others, meaning no marriage, I was sure, nobody would love me”. Her much older husband Henri (father of Noël b. *1965), was bi-polar, and capable of strange behaviour, often offering his wife to visitors. And sometime Michelle did not need his encouragement, “motherhood was not my strength”.
She raised Noül as a girl, the odd couple produced an old doll, and immediately an argument breaks out as to whether the object could be defined as a doll. Next up is an accident in a pool, when Noël nearly drowned. Although his mother insists he mistook the adult pool for the children’s one, Noël insists on an early suicide attempt at the age of four. This leads to him lamenting the lack of motherly love in general, whilst his father Henri always repeatedly told him:” I love you”. They then discuss psychological neglect: “We are in a different film”.
Noël casts his mind back to the first film he even saw, running out frightened from the café in Avignon. I was afraid of everything that moved. No wonder I became a film-historian, it is the stillness of the past that attracts me.” The family had bough a property in Poudrigne, and Noël spend many holidays with older half-brother Olivier in the countryside and when he was five, he heard his his mother crying behind closed doors, “so I opened the door”. Since then, he has tried to forget the images – but was at the same fascinated by them. For once, Michelle is contrite: “It was harmful for you, I have to love with the guilt”. Both agree, that Henri was a repressed homosexual. His son Noel would follow in his footsteps, after taking in interest in his mother’s tights, he also borrowed her clothes and jewellery. For Noel it was life-changing: “I felt like becoming my mother”. Michelle comments: “the tights look better on your friend Cyril, who is much slimmer than you”.
A short film “Man” documents young Noel’s entrance into the life of a fetishist. But he rejects the idea of being an exhibitionist: “I am just saying I am my mother. A ghost of my mother”. After Michelle left her husband at he age of 37, Noël moved in with Henri, to look after him. Henri’s mental health was deteriorating. Mother and son agree – for once – that Michelle loved her husband, whose death was never totally explained. Michelle admits still feeling love for him today. Both mother and son worked at the theatre: “it was a period to re-connect with her. We shopped together for dresses”. But soon they argue about details of their stage collaboration, she accusing her son “of being like Trump”. Noel directed his first gay play in 1988, even though both agree that he is “a non-practising gay man.”He later confesses to “lack any carnal dimension”. They finally come to the conclusion that he will miss her when she is gone, but he ends positing: “I set out dreaming of absolute love”.
Filmed either on a couch or on the stage of an empty theatre by Nils Warolin and Tao Favre, with family photos and old newsreels interrupting the talking heads, Noël et sa Mere, is a psychological striptease, fascinating and disturbing at the same time. Acting much more like frustrated lovers than mother and son, it is a portrait of mixed signals and double-binds. Unique and haunting. AS
FID MARSEILLE | 9-15 JULY 2019