Philippe Mora has lived a remarkable life. His parents led even more exceptional lives. And one jam-packed documentary by Trevor Graham aims to chronicle Mora tracing his parents’ family histories – as he also creates a graphic novel out of their wartime experiences.Where to begin? It seems Graham had that very question – and the answer is not so clear. Monseiur Mayonnaise – a 95-minute film that debuted at the Melbourne International Film Festival last year and appeared at the Berlin International Film Festival in February – is a tumultuous romp through decades, family histories and film styles.The story itself is quite cluttered: Mora, born in France and raised in Australia, is the son of two French Jews – Georges and Mirka Mora. Or so he thought: his father was actually born Gunter Morawski in Germany, later fleeing to France where he joined the French resistance – but more on that later. His mother was rounded up and deported from Paris, but managed to be released from a detention camp before she could be deported to Auschwitz. She and her family were hidden in the French countryside until the war ended.
Graham’s film follows Mora’s attempts to commit his family history – both sides of it – to a jarring graphic novel. Mora travels around the world, meeting figures who knew his parents, painting images of deportations and narrating in his lilting Australian accent.There’s more than enough here to keep an audience entertained, but Graham adds in silly film noir scenes that clutter an already graphic, colorful tale. There are also seemingly unrelated sequences, regular footage of Nazi goose-stepping and too many asides to count.“This cartoon depicts me meeting Hitler,” Mora tells the viewer, “which I’ve done a few times in my dreams.” Indeed we watch Mora paint regularly throughout the film, like a Holocaust-themed version of PBS’s Bob Ross. We also hear plenty of colorful testimony from his still-living mother, Mirka, 89, as well as home videos of her cavorting around in the nude as a young mother. Despite the jumble, there are several incredibly moving, captivating scenes in the film, particularly of the people Mora meets along his journey.First, we watch him travel to France, where he embraces Giselle Fournier, the last remaining member of the family that hid his mother during World War II. Fournier is visibly moved by meeting Mora, recounting in great detail the time she spent with Mirka and her family.
Mora also travels to Philadelphia, to find Henri Parens, a renowned psychiatrist who was one of the children saved by Mora’s father during the war. Parens tells Mora of his father’s kindness and bravery, risking everything to smuggle French Jewish children to Switzerland in the middle of the war.And, here, finally, close to an hour and 15 minutes in to the film, comes the mayonnaise. Mora’s father was apparently nicknamed “Monsieur Mayonnaise” because of his ingenious plan to smuggle the necessary documents across the border – wrap them in wax paper, cover them in mayonnaise and hide them in a baguette. Georges knew the fastidious Nazi border guards would not want to dirty their pristine gloves by checking inside the sandwiches.Mora travels to the French-Swiss border, to the exact site where his father helped smuggle children to safety. His painting there, imagining these somber, terrified children crossing a river in the middle of the night, is one place it really resonates.It’s quite an impressive feat for Graham to cram so much into just 95 minutes. But for every sequence I could have skipped – shots from the kitschy horror movies Mora produced over his career; watching him sample both fresh French baguettes and gourmet mayonnaise in Paris – there are moments glossed over that begged for more attention.Like the fact that, in 1973, Mora premiered a film at the Cannes Film Festival called Swastika, which included never- before-seen home video footage of Hitler. The movie provoked such a violent response during the screening that it had to be stopped – it was later banned in Germany.Or the story that Georges Mora’s accomplice during the French resistance was none other than famed French mime Marcel Marceau? The pair dressed as nuns to guide the Jewish children across the border, and Marceau used mime to keep them quiet and entertained.There are so many incredible story lines to be found in Monseiur Mayonnaise, and some get lost under the clunky timeline and delivery. It’s a real shame.