“Where is my mother?”
A vain utterance from the midpoint of Darren Aronofsky’s mother!, which, undoubtedly, is the question his metaphor-ridden fever-dream endeavours to answer.
Written by the director over the course of five insomnia-filled days, mother! is a piece of work that sets out to deceive, disappoint and frustrate anyone looking for straight narratives with a delineated beginning, middle and end. For anyone wanting to invest in its central themes, the film delivers conundrums of Biblical proportions and casts thick ambiguity across its length.
Suffice to say, mother! is divisive in extremis.
Centring around the relationship of a young, doting wife (Jennifer Lawrence) and her older, bohemian poet husband (Javier Bardem) who occupy an isolated farmhouse in the countryside. Aronofsky’s work concerns its surface level with the domesticity of the family unit and the anticipatory roles each must play. One evening, their utopian existence is rocked by the arrival of a strange man (Ed Harris) seeking refuge for the night on a flimsy pretence, who is warmly welcomed into the home by the husband, as the wife quietly bristles at her territorial intrusion. From here on, their homely sacred space is continually invaded by increasingly pervasive characters, eventually reaching apocalyptic levels.
Did I mention the ‘mother’ has recently been impregnated? This is the genesis of a nightmare maternity to follow…
In the opening reel, you are made conscious (through a dreamlike depiction of Jennifer Lawrence) that mother! is always a footstep away from surrealistic flights of fancy – and Aronofsky, in the second half of this film, is fearless in this aspect. He gently lulls his characters into an unsustainable tranquillity, unhurriedly hinting at supernatural forces and telegraphs the inevitable ensuing chaos.
Lawrence’s vanilla character is an annoyance
Shot from the viewpoint of Lawrence for almost its entirety, framing her face in invasive close-up, mother! is as claustrophobically intimate as it is a deliberately irritant.
Lawrence’s vanilla character is an annoyance; adhering to maxims of politeness and overruled by the disarming, overly generous hippy ideals of her husband, she seldom scratches out characteristics beyond that of being ‘a good person’. Equally, Bardem’s messianic, liberal and noble sensibilities are as chalkboard-grating as the piercing soundscapes we hear when Lawrence periodically loses control.
All this idealistic goodliness (knowingly a nod to Godliness) is completely necessary to create a repartee for Harris and his wife, (Michelle Pfeiffer) to bounce off as a pair of agitators during the second chapter. In a welcome return to form, Pfeiffer’s show-stopping performance as a bitchy, jealous controlling older woman is a masterclass in villainy, a touch pantomime in places, but delivered with a salaciously authoritarian stamp.
Lawrence’s faithful embodiment of an idealistic wife and muse achieves some of her best acting work to date. Despite the meta-narrative (as she is the real-life partner of Aronofsky), she grips the fantastical world she is exploring with both hands, convincing us to follow her lead through its quirks and fairy-tale scenery. Bardem, too, does a decent turn of reining in his creepy overtures and playing on his character’s blissful naivety.
The diegetic sound is integral and most impressive.
The abode, in which Lawrence finds herself, creaks and cracks, enveloping Aronofsky’s players in some of the best use of surround sound I’ve found outside of war-themed films. The house feels like another character, struggling to have its voice heard throughout and frequently orientating the audience as to the geography of a scene when the visuals fail to do so. The score by Jóhann Jóhannsson is barely audible - not subtly integrated – but completely absent, relying on the incidental sound to pull through dramatic sequences. One can’t help but think Aronofsky’s long-time collaborator, Clint Mansell, is sorely missed here.
Clear lines can be drawn with the screenplay’s themes and other films of its ilk; the perplexing hyper-realism of Aronofsky’s own The Fountain (2006), the maternal horror of Polanski’s Rosemary’s Baby (1968), the Buñuellian pandemonium of The Exterminating Angel (1968) (something Aronofsky confessed to using as an inspiration), and snippets of the emboldened, nonsensical, visionary work of David Lynch.
mother!'s real purpose is to serve as the director’s critique of the world
mother! has been mass-marketed by Paramount as a horror film in an effort to recoup the $30 million spent on its production which, in my mind, is something of a fallacy. It has a horror inflection, but its real purpose is to serve as the director’s critique of the world – and a scathing one at that. Everyone will come away with a different interpretation, which is the beauty of mother!, even though Aronofsky has uncharacteristically spelled out his intent at various press screenings.
Make no mistake, mother! is an emboldened piece of allegorical filmmaking.
Whilst not a definitive list; I saw pot-shots at the ‘cult’ of celebrity, liberalism, loss of individuality, war, contemporary feminism, idolatry and many, many others. The denouement is a beautifully fun rollercoaster of imagery cranking up to the final big drop; chock-full of metaphors and allegories delivered with a trigger-happy machine-gun brashness. It’s admirable but hard work - almost cocksure and arrogant - as Aronofsky baits the audience to pick apart every other shot of Lawrence’s final Stygian reveries.
I could see my fellow companions squirming with confusion in doing so.
Where mother! succeeds is where it occasionally fails, Aronofsky’s heavy-handed use of symbolism overwhelms and ties itself up in its own confident defiance from your atypical Hollywood A-List film. Any vivisection of mother! is futile. Your thoughts should carry you out of the cinema, not detract while relishing the ride through someone else’s personal hell. An impressive hell (according to Aronofsky), which we all inhabit, create and contribute toward until the slate is wiped clean.