mother! – Film Review by David Turpin
Directed by Darren Aronofsky
Starring Jennifer Lawrence, Javier Bardem, Michelle Pfeiffer, Ed Harris
This correspondent has long been a defender of Darren Aronofsky’s unfairly maligned Noah (2014). Following two eminently respectable, star-driven projects – The Wrestler (2008) and Black Swan (2010) – Noah felt like something truly original, a Biblical story reconfigured as a piece of visionary science-fiction. That it wasn’t recognised as such is more down to reactionary prejudices about ‘religious’ stories than it is to anything in the film itself. Nevertheless, with Mother! (exclamation mark as standard), Aronofsky seems to be back on more familiar ground. And yet…
Initially, Mother! presents itself as a reworking of a trusty genre – a play on ‘domestic horror’ to sit alongside The Wrestler’s sports movie and Black Swan’s backstage melodrama. We meet an unnamed married couple (Jennifer Lawrence and Javier Bardem). He is a writer and she is a homemaker, engaged in the process of restoring her husband’s childhood home to its former glory after it was destroyed in a fire. Their domestic routine is disrupted when an uninvited man (Ed Harris) arrives at the house late of an evening. After Bardem’s character learns he is a fan, he invites him to stay. Soon, the unnamed man’s wife (Michelle Pfeiffer) has turned up, mixing boozy lemonade in the middle of the day and goading Lawrence’s character to spill the beans on her marital intimacies. Naturally, we’re heading for trouble – and that’s before anybody even mentions the mysterious crystal on display in the sacrosanct writer’s room.
The early stages of Mother! have a certain ring of Polanski about them, as Lawrence’s character proves unable to assert herself in the face of the intruders’ gradual encroachment upon her home and, particularly, her husband. As events progress, and more strangers begin to arrive – bringing with them increasingly bizarre and disastrous events – the film takes on shades of Bunuel’s The Discreet Charm of the Bourgeoisie (1972). Just as the characters in that film were continually thwarted in their efforts to sit down to dinner, here Lawrence’s beleaguered bride is endlessly prevented from getting quality time with her husband.
The difference between Bunuel’s film and Aronofsky’s is that Bunuel is treating a serious subject (class warfare) with impish satire, while Aronofsky is in strictly didactic mode. With a bloody mindedness that deserves a certain respect, he presents his characters in such a way that we are simply not permitted to read them as anything but archetypes (nobody has a name, only ‘Mother’, ‘Husband’, ‘Man’, ‘Woman’, etc.). The sheer generality of the allegory they perform ought to leave the film open to a number of readings, but most of them boil down to this: Men are from Mars, Women are from Venus. You heard it here first. Except, of course, you didn’t.
The tension at the centre of Mother! relates to forms of creativity that are presented as specifically male and specifically female, and therein lies some of the trouble. While the process of carrying and giving birth to a child is, obviously and exclusively, female, the film attempts to create a yin-yang situation between child-bearing and artistic production, which – last time anybody checked – was a unisex pursuit. Furthermore, the most immediately legible idea on display – that men crave the adulation of the world, while women crave the undivided attention of a single mate – seems less archetypal than reductive. One is constantly torn, watching Mother!, between the bravura of the filmmaking and the dispiriting banality of the ideas behind it. When Aronofsky’s camera penetrates the walls of the house itself to reveal a trembling, thumping heart the cosmetic punch of the image isn’t quite enough to cancel out its sheer bluntness as a representation of ‘woman as the heart of the home’.
The last time anybody tried to make such a big, bold statement about Men and Women in the guise of a star-studded prestige picture was probably Stanley Kubrick’s Eyes Wide Shut (1999), and while Aronofsky doesn’t fall into the same models-in-thongs clichés Kubrick did, the sexual politics of his film feel very fusty indeed. What unfolds in the film’s apocalyptic final third is seemingly intended as a kind of mea culpa for the selfishness of the male need to be adored for what he creates outside himself, while the woman goes unrewarded – worse, destroyed – for embodying a different, interior creative power.
Although it’s put over with sequence after sequence of exclamation-mark-earning horror, Aronofsky’s sermon on male infantilism and female suffering all feels a little wrong-headed – or worse, disingenuous – given that his apportioning of male and female roles is itself remarkably restrictive. For instance, Aronosfky’s archetypal coding of the Ages of Woman allows for precisely two: Fountain of Fertility (Lawrence) and Sinister Boozy Shrew (Pfeiffer). Thankfully, Pfeiffer is an absolute delight in the film, having the most fun she’s had in a long time. Heroically, she digs in and plays this material the way it ought to be played – as luscious, lurid camp. Elsewhere – while there is no bad acting, per se – everybody else is essentially playing a Tarot card, an archetypal image onto which meaning can be imposed from the outside. Of course, as with Tarot – if the meaning bothers you, whoever is dealing the cards (in this case, the writer/director) can simply say you created it yourself.
Interestingly, while Mother! feels very mid-20th century in many of its ideas and aesthetics, its closest relation – and most effective rebuttal – might be the British-American writer Mina Loy’s 1914 poem ‘Parturition’. “I am the centre / Of a circle of pain / Exceeding its boundaries in every direction,” Loy writes of the act of giving birth, remarking that in her “congested cosmos of agony […] the irresponsibility of the male / Leaves woman her superior Inferiority. / He is running upstairs / I am climbing a distorted mountain of agony”. Loy’s vision of womanhood and motherhood has much in common with Aronofsky’s on the surface – although the crucial difference is that Loy inhabits the experience, while Aronofsky paces outside wringing his hands about how guilty it all makes him feel. Still, Mother! is something to celebrate, if only because so few directors get free reign to put such a ‘congested cosmos of agony’ on screen. It’s just a shame he didn’t create one with a bit more going on.