It will come as no surprise to regular readers that over the last year I’ve become increasingly interested in the films of Australian director Philippe Mora, most particularly his films focused on the representation of history. From Swastika (1974) to Snide and Prejudice (1997), each of Mora’s historically centered works is part of a life-long project to deconstruct traditional understandings of the past and force viewers to reexamine their own perspectives. When I heard that Mora, who is also an incredibly talented painter, was writing a graphic novel detailing the tale of his parents’ struggles as European Jews during World War II, I was immediately intrigued. But I was absolutely ecstatic when it was announced that Trevor Graham was making a documentary film, Monsieur Mayonnaise, about Mora’s journey in writing this comic book. Having just attended the film’s world premiere at the Melbourne International Film Festival, I can happily state that Monsieur Mayonnaise is outstanding.
For those outside of Australia, it’s worth beginning by noting that Philippe’s parents, Mirka and the late George Mora, both became well-known Melbourne personalities soon after arriving in the country back in 1951. Mirka has been a prominent Melbourne artist for more than half a century. George, was equally as renowned in Melbourne as a patron of the arts and a restaurateur. What is less well known is that during WWII George was a member of the French Resistance, tasked with sneaking Jewish children out of France, and that Mirka spent much of the war in hiding from the Germans, having narrowly escaped from a train that would have soon taken her to Auschwitz.
It is this period in the lives of Mirka and George with which the film is primarily concerned. Trevor Graham films Philippe Mora as they travel between the United States, Europe and Australia, looking to uncover many of the details of the Mora story, meeting as many of the surviving key players as possible. As Mora states early on, there are not too many people still alive who can contribute to this story, and if it were not told now, in many ways it could never be properly told. This point is striking when considered within the context of Mora’s career as director of historical cinema. He’s long been concerned with peeling back the broadly accepted narratives around the rise of Hitler, revealing the complex and devastating human realities of this complex period in history. In teaming up with the hugely talented Trevor Graham, the two have created a significant work that aligns perfectly with this approach.
I’ve not yet seen Trevor Graham’s previous film, Make Hummus Not War, which looks at the recent international argument that began over Lebanon’s attempt to register hummus as a national dish, a claim disputed by Israel and several other countries. Based on what I’ve now seen of his work, I’ll certainly be seeing it soon. In the Q&A following the premiere of Monsieur Mayonnaise, it was noted that Hummus and Mayonnaise were part of what might become Graham’s “Food Trilogy”. It’s not hard to see why. The latter title refers to George Mora’s codename as a member of the French Resistance, a name he was given following a series of elaborate missions in which secret documents were concealed by George and his close friend, the well renowned mime Marcel Marceau, in French baguettes and smothered with Mayonnaise. Mayonnaise, we learn, is considered something of an art form in its own right in France, and a good portion of the film is spent on some rather hilarious debates about who in the Mora family makes it best.
Philippe Mora provides the charismatic core for all that occurs in Monsieur Mayonnaise. He is a deeply curious individual in general, and the opportunity to travel the world in search of his parents’ story is one that clearly stimulates Mora both intellectually and emotionally. His irreverent tone is captured beautifully by Graham, who allows him the freedom to don comical characters in the telling of the story (the most prominent being that of a noir era writer), much in keeping with the edgy comedies about art and history that have occupied Mora in recent years. However, the real star is not Philippe Mora at all but the artwork he produces for his graphic novel along the way. I know a lot more about cinema than I do about painting, but I’m always strongly affected by the way in which Mora’s WWII themed paintings create an intersection between real historical moments, the comical, and violent emotional trauma. Trevor Graham knows this all too well, not only using this artwork regularly throughout the course of the film to great emotive effect, but also allowing us to watch Mora in the process of painting as he travels across Europe.
Art, of course, is in some ways what this film is all about. In interviews with Mirka Mora, we learn about the profound effect that her experiences had on her own creative process. In particular, an incredible revelation is made about the wide-eyed childish faces that populate so much of her work, and a particularly painful memory that has followed Mirka throughout her life. This is all the more powerful given the great contrast between this playful, positive, and deeply charming artist and the topic under discussion. She is a wonderful character that Melburnians have been in love with for over fifty years, and this film will only further cement her status as one of the city’s most lovable public figures.
The art connection continues through the presence of William Mora, Philippe’s brother and a well-respected art dealer, just as it does in the implicit presence of the late George Mora, who become an art dealer of some note at the end of the war. But it is in the exceptional talent of Trevor Graham, who brings together the charisma and stories of the Mora family with a general celebration of artistic expression through everything from food and painting to cinema, that the film becomes a work of art in its own right. Graham masterfully channels the artistic talents of these individuals, particularly Phillipe, into an irreverent and moving exploration of history. As soon as the opportunity becomes available, you’d be doing yourself a great service by watching Monsieur Mayonnaise.