Here are the latest reviews coming in from Sundance for Two Mothers:
A ludicrous melodrama that begs to be handled as an over-the-top sex farce is instead treated with the solemnity of a wake, albeit one with a rather lenient dress code, in “Two Mothers.” Fully embracing the narcissism and misplaced priorities of its four hopelessly inseparable characters, Anne Fontaine’s film about two lifelong friends who fall for each other’s sons is all vapidly beautiful surface, an impeccably tasteful picture about some awfully tasteless decisions. Typically classy performances by Naomi Watts and Robin Wright lend the material more dignity and interest than it warrants, spelling lucrative inroads with distaff audiences in arthouse play.
An opening sequence swiftly establishes the schematic symmetries at the core of this Australia-set adaptation of Doris Lessing’s novella “The Grandmothers.” Best friends since they were growing up along the coast of New South Wales, Roz (Wright) and Lil (Watts) have a lot in common: They’re both strikingly beautiful blondes who live in adjacent beachfront houses, and each one has a son of about 20. Roz’s boy, Tom (James Frecheville), and Lil’s son, Ian (Xavier Samuel), are also best friends and surfing buddies. With Lil a longtime widow and Roz’s husband (Ben Mendelsohn) away in Sydney on business, the four love to idle away their free time together with wine, cards and occasional dancing.
It’s all a bit more self-involved than what most would consider healthy, and sure enough, it’s not long before Ian quietly makes a move on Roz, who puts up little resistance. Tom, having witnessed the encounter, marches over to Lil’s pad the next morning and seduces her in almost retaliatory fashion. Common sense and decency momentarily intrude, but soon the characters decide they rather like this arrangement and can make it work, giving the matter about as much time or consideration as it took to write this sentence. Or, as Lil puts it: “I don’t want to stop. I don’t see why we have to.”
Perhaps it takes a Gallic sensibility to suggest that this unconventional design for living could be a viable one, and there are moments when Fontaine (“Coco Before Chanel”), a French director making her English-language debut, seems prepared to tap into the material’s vulgar comic potential. Yet the laughs that are generated seem mostly unintentional, as this softcore cougar fantasy proceeds with the hushed solemnity of a Bergman chamber drama.
Despite their self-serious approach, Fontaine and scribe Christopher Hampton (usually a dab hand at tony literary material) tend to usher their characters away from the tough, juicy confrontations that would provide the requisite payoffs and presumably enable audience understanding. Exquisite beauty and decorum, as exemplified by Christophe Beaucarne’s pristine widescreen images and Christopher Gordon’s lush orchestrations, are apparently all the explanation or justification one needs. Not only do Lil and Roz fail to give each other a good throttling; they barely even raise their voices, treating each other instead with simpering politeness.
As far as Ian and Tom go, it’s unclear what they see in their significant mothers beyond physical attraction. Frankly, it’s unclear what these strapping Adonises think of anything; far more puzzling than the film’s May-December content is the revelation that Ian, played as a hulking, incommunicative slab by Frecheville, aspires to be a theater director.
Roz’s marriage crumbles and two years pass, during which this menage a quatre more or less retreats from the knowledge and judgment of the outside world and into a perpetual state of beach-bum bliss. Eventually, however, Tom’s wandering eye and the sudden appearance of wrinkles on Lil’s face determine that the situation is unsustainable, and the film’s second half sees the boys moving on and eventually starting their own families even as the pain of separation persists. (Tom and Ian each have a daughter, perhaps laying the groundwork for a much ickier sequel.)
Watts and Wright can both convey nuance and quiet intelligence even when seeming to do nothing in particular, and it’s lovely to see them share the screen at length, even if they’re largely coasting on serene presence in lieu of meaty material. A bit of a blank at first, Samuel gradually comes into his own as Ian emerges the most hotheaded and honest member of the foursome, achieving one of the few moments when real feelings and emotional stakes seem to breach the film’s immaculate surface. In all other respects, “Two Mothers” paints a picture of privileged isolation so stilted, otherworldly and ultimately impenetrable, it almost qualifies as science fiction.
Two Mothers: Sundance Review
The Bottom Line
Despite her accomplished cast, French director Anne Fontaine summons neither the dramatic heft nor the humor to put across this absurd forbidden-love scenario.
Naomi Watts and Robin Wright play Australian women who enter into relationships with each other’s sons in Anne Fontaine’s first English-language feature.
PARK CITY – It’s not just the large number of people constantly smoking in Anne Fontaine’s miscalculated Two Mothers that makes the Australian characters seem like French imposters. Had the duo of the title been played by, say, Isabelle Huppert and Emmanuelle Beart, pawing at each other’s sons with ferocious intensity, there might have been some Oedipal amour fou fuel to power the scenario. But even with such class acts as Naomi Watts and Robin Wright on hand to lend integrity, this glossy drama never escapes its air of faint ludicrousness.
Based on a short story by Doris Lessing called The Grandmothers, the English-language film was adapted by Christopher Hampton, which is somewhat surprising given its on-the-nose dialogue. Everything is spelled out literally and at a stultifying pace, in a story that might have worked onscreen as either heightened melodrama or farcical comedy. Instead Fontaine, who is not exactly blessed with a light touch, opts for misplaced sincerity.
Set in a sun-glazed paradise on Australia’s East coast, where the rainforest meets the beach, the story centers on two friends since childhood, Lil (Watts) and Roz (Wright), now living in neighboring houses perched above the ocean. In a succession of clunky flash-forwards, we encounter them as girls, then as adults at the funeral of Lil’s husband, and then a few years later, when their respective sons, Ian (Xavier Samuel) and Tom (James Frecheville), have grown into strapping surfers at the tail end of their teens.
The sultry air is so pregnant with sensuality that it’s only a matter of time before the inter-generational coupling commences. No sooner has Roz’s husband Harold (Ben Mendelsohn, in a thankless role) gone south for a Sydney University position, expecting his wife and son to follow, than Ian starts shooting longing glances at his best bud’s mother.
Roz responds immediately to Ian’s advances. When a stunned Tom realizes what’s going on, he puts similar moves on Lil, who gives in after initially resisting. The taboo-busting nature of these twin affairs is addressed almost nonchalantly, with Lil offering up the understatement that they have “crossed a line.” But any potential emotional conflict from the situation yields only mild humor and awkwardness. Considering the unorthodox scenario, this is a film almost entirely without psychological depth or tension.
Neither couple follows through on their half-hearted resolve to end the relationships, and two years later the passion still burns. Roz’s marriage has quietly dissolved in the meantime, with Harold starting a new family in Sydney. Tom goes to the city for a temporary job and meets a more age-appropriate love interest in Mary (Jessica Tovey). Lil is hurt when this comes to light, and with both women aware that their advancing age will lead to complications down the line, Roz declares the menage a quatre over.
The most vehemently opposed to Roz’s decree is Ian. While, like Tom, he moves on and starts a family, he displays few signs of emotional commitment in his new life, continuing to simmer with resentment. Inevitably the truth spills out, hurting a number of innocents in the process.
There’s a potentially interesting attempt here to explore without judgment what older women might be drawn to in relationships with much younger men – physical pleasure, respect, reassurance against the march of time and unencumbered freedoms that often vanish over the course of conventional long-term unions. But the film sticks to the surfaces, like a tonally unsure comedy of manners right up to the climactic exposure. That makes these characters not much more than irresponsible narcissists living in self-satisfied isolation.
Looking effortlessly beautiful, Watts and Wright bring intelligence and dignity that’s unmerited, and with lesser actresses in the roles this would be far sillier. A late scene in which Lil comes clean to Roz about her and Tom’s post-breakup transgressions has a welcome emotional delicacy that’s rare in this script. Samuel and Frecheville similarly give it their all to play their hot-and-heavy roles with conviction, but Fontaine mostly reduces them to pouting Abercrombie & Fitch models.
The aptly named cinematographer Christophe Beaucarne brings a soft, warm glow to the ample displays of toned, gorgeously bronzed flesh, the idyllic setting and chic homes right out of a beach-living decor spread. And the lush orchestral score by Christopher Gordon and Antony Partos reflects the director’s earnest intentions. But basically, this is tasteful MILF porn.
Sundance Reviews: ‘God Loves Uganda’ Inspires Anger; ‘Two Mothers’ Prompts Giggles
So when the Sundance Film Festival books a film whose plotline is described as, “This gripping tale of love, lust, and the power of friendship charts the unconventional and passionate affairs of two lifelong friends who fall in love with each other’s sons,” you figure that the results would have to be smarter and more complicated than the porn-y premise on the surface, right?
Wrong! “Two Mothers” may be based on a novel by Doris Lessing and adapted to the screen by director Anne Fontaine (“Coco Before Chanel”) and prestige hack Christopher Hampton, with Naomi Watts and Robin Wright in the lead roles, but it’s an exceedingly silly, sun-baked sex movie, the kind of import that adds just enough brains to its genitals to get into U.S. arthouses. (In the ’70s, the mothers would have been played by Laura Antonelli and Sylvia Kristel.)
What you think happens, happens: Lil (Watts) and Roz (Wright) grow up on the Australian coast as best pals, and eventually give birth to hunky surfers who could pass as Abercrombie models. Lil’s 20-ish son Ian (Xavier Samuels) initiates an affair with Roz, and Roz’s son (James Frecheville) does likewise to Lil, and we’re off to the races. We’re not, however, going to get a single adult conversation about the implications or morality or even logic of this set-up.
Instead, Fontaine gives us scene after scene of swimming and surfing and sun-bathing. At first, it’s an interesting motif, to make these characters seem more bonded with nature than with the human world. (None of them seem to have any friends outside of the two families.) But after spending an hour in the ocean, the movie gets as swollen and wrinkly as the characters’ fingers.
Watts and Wright, naturally, act the hell out of this piffle, and at the Sundance premiere, Fontaine seemed genuinely taken aback that the audience laughed at it throughout, so clearly the intention was to make a serious drama and not just a beautifully-shot (by Christophe Beaucarne) mix of the worst of Lifetime and Cinemax.
Nonetheless, the resulting movie is basically Buff Teens and the Cougar MILFs Who Love Them.
Sundance review: ‘Two Mothers’
If it had been intentionally funny instead of un-, Anne Fontaine’s “Two Mothers” would have made an excellent episode of “Absolutely Fabulous.”
This would-be serious sex drama is a woefully soapy piece of middle-aged female fantasy, with Robin Wright and Naomi Watts as Australians (yes, Wright does an Aussie accent, lightly) living in idyllic beachfront property. They’ve been best friends since childhood. Watts loses her husband in the opening scene, when each woman has a boy who is about eight, then we cut to ten or so years later when the boys are tall, square-jawed, ripped hunks (but neither woman has aged at all). “They’re like young gods!” says one of these ladies, swilling their wine, sunning themselves and eye-bonking the boys while the youngsters are taking their shirts off, surfing, taking languid outdoor showers and otherwise acting like they’ve been dreamed up by Samantha in “Sex and the City.”
Because, I guess, there are no girls their age in the world, the lads (Xavier Samuel, James Frecheville) never seem to leave the house and spend all their time drinking, bantering, and playing cards with the old ladies Roz (Wright) and Lil (Watts). It isn’t long before, on a sleepover, Roz is saying “Do you have everything you need?” and her friend’s son Ian says, “No” and goes in for the kiss. Clothes are rapidly shed. Vengeance-minded, Roz’s son Tom goes to Lil’s place, telling her, “I didn’t come to see Ian.” As the porno composers put it, Baum-chik-a-BAUM-BAUM! When he returns to his mom he says, proudly, “I’ve been doing to her what he’s been doing to you.” This entirely accurate statement earns him a “Dynasty”-grade face slap.
The other husband is cleared away for an out-of-town job and after a bit of we-shouldn’t-be-doing this the girls think: Hey, maybe given how great it feels, we should be doing this! (I note that in cheating-husband dramas, the man’s actions are virtually always treated as despicable, whereas cheating women are simply getting themselves a little empowerment.) So the four of them have lots of hot sex. Because, I guess, nothing turns a boy on like nuzzling the Caesarean scar that marks his best friend’s point of entrance to the world.
If you can believe it, the third act of the film, which drew several loud bursts of laughter at its most dramatic moments, is even more ridiculous than the rest, because Fontaine and screenwriter Christopher Hampton fail to see that when you’re in a black hole of absurdity, you need to stop digging. We’ve got an early contender for worst film of 2013.
Sundance Review: “Two Mothers”
Naomi Watts, one of the stars of “Two Mothers,” acknowledged that she had the same visceral reaction to the film’s love story as many in the audience.
“I was shocked on the first reading of the script,” Watts said at a question-and-answer session following the films first screening Saturday at the Sundance Film Festival.
The plot, in short, of what is one of the more controversial (and perhaps will be the most successful) films at this year’s festival is, briefly: Two life-long best friends, Lil (Watts) and Roz (Robin Wright) have love affairs with each other’s 20-year-old sons. The film was one cited by a conservative Utah group that asked the state of Utah to cut funding to the festival because its movies have questionable family values.
At one point in the Q and A, Watts explained the challenge of presenting the material — which at its core a tale of the friendship between two women— in a way that shifts the audience’s reaction from judgement to forgiveness: “I’ve had relationships like that,” before catching herself, “Well, not completely like that. ” Still flustered, Watts added, “You know what I mean.”
Considering the close friendship of Roz and Lil, the relationships are practically oedipal and Watts refers to the dual affairs as the “unspeakable thing.”
“It’s a secret that binds them. It’s a drug they can’t give up,” she said.
Director Anne Fontaine made the story into a beautiful movie, which might rob the flim of its power. It’s too lovely. The two most beautiful moms in Australia have the continent’s two hunkiest surfer sons and live in two beautiful homes overlooking a breathtaking bay—complete with dolphins— (for fun, let’s just call it Blue Lagoon). Did I mention that Roz runs an art gallery and Lil works for a yacht designer?
But it’s not as if we haven’t seen plenty of movies about love between older men and young girls, passed off as adorable or at least acceptable. Even seeing Fred Astaire and Audrey Hepburn matched up in “Funny Face” is a bit uncomfortable.
“Two Mothers” could be easily parodied as “MILFs Down Under” or “Cougars in Paradise” or “Mommys’ Mid-life Fantasy.” But the basic story, from a novella by Doris Lessing, explores the travails of inconvenient love that, as Watts explained, fills the voids of loneliness and fear felt by two women about to see their sons move on to adulthood.
Fontaine may have answered the family values critics about as well as she could, when she explained: “It’s a very strange love story. But it is a love story. Not a sex story.”