Director: Darren Aronofsky
Genre: Drama/ Mystery/ Horror
Cast: Jennifer Lawrence, Javier Bardem, Ed Harris, Michelle Pfeiffer.
Darren Aronofsky’s unconventional films mirror their characters’ descent into madness. They are uncompromisingly intense, gritty, hard-hitting, and incredibly loud. Even so, from Pi to Black Swan, I cannot think of a movie in his filmography that deserves an exclamation point in the title more than his latest film. Everyone and everything in the movie seems to scream about how surreal and crazy it is, and it all unfolds like one of your worst nightmares. The script was written in just five days, and this partly unconscious and unfiltered process is reflected in the mood of the film. I also cannot think of another word in the English language that can drive psychoanalysts and art scholars insane more than “mother”. Which is fitting, because Aronofsky’s latest experiment is one of his most deeply, gut-wrenchingly psychological films, and also one of his darkest, which certainly says something. Even if seen as one long allegory, mother! is still certainly not for everyone – it’s really no surprise that it was booed at the Venice Film Festival.
The camera worships Jennifer Lawrence, who plays a nameless character presented symbolically as Mother. We follow her point of view, we watch her every move from up close and we empathize with every change in emotion – the film is as intimate in its portrayal of its female protagonist as, say Black Swan, and perhaps a little bit more personal. She lives with her husband, a writer and poet played by Javier Bardem (credited as Him – most characters don’t have actual names), in an isolated house close to nature (we can’t help but notice the maternal associations). They are as separated from the rest of the world as, we realize, they are from each other. The building, beautiful and big from the outside, feels like a claustrophobic maze not too unlike one in a haunted house movie, a space as deliberately unsettling as the mathematician’s apartment in Pi. Though mother! is in not exactly horror film – not by traditional standards, anyway – Aronofsky utilizes many horror conventions such as low lighting, spine-chilling sound effects, and dark imagery, both as a representation of the main character’s anxiety and as another effort to deconstruct and break apart pop culture norms. As tensions rise, Lawrence’s character explores the house’s empty and hollow basement, a chilling symbol of the subconscious mind.
Several guests start visiting the house, to our protagonist’s understanding seemingly uninvited, and for no apparent reason receive the couple’s hospitality. They seem unreal and the acting is intentionally a little bit over the top, whereas Lawrence’s is natural by contrast. As a self-taught actress who balances intuition with skill, she is the perfect choice for the role. The guests embody the character’s insecurities and fears. To say that they disturb her domestic peace would be an understatement: they confront her about not having children, they question the strength of her relationship with her husband, and they test her competence in every department. They’re there to steal her partner and make him feel the way she apparently cannot. They volunteer to paint the walls and finish the work she didn’t. They seem to able to control and be calm about everything; and when something bad happens, they can grieve and they know what to say.
More and more guests arrive, and things make less sense. As they form larger groups, they bring grander ideas to the forefront: they express religious-like adoration, they commit horribly violent atrocities, they have sex. And what about Mother? Well, she feels out of place, and as she declares early into the film, she’s confused. Left helpless, she is a mere observer of the world’s incomprehensibility.
Like any dream, there are many ways to interpret mother!, but not so much because of some sort of Lynchian, mind-bending narrative structure – although the influence of Lynch’s dreamscapes was evident since Aronofsky’s debut. The film could be about feeling disconnected from the rest of world, about trying to navigate through chaos, whether external or internal. It could also be about people’s innate need for attention: Lawrence’s character complains that nothing is ever about her (it is ironic that the film itself could not be more about her), and she’s right: Bardem’s character is selfish and also accomplished in his field; he gets all the recognition he needs. “Don’t they know it’s the end of the world/ It ended when I lost your love,” read the lyrics of the song that plays during the credits (Skeeter Davis’ ‘The End of the World’), which describes their situation perfectly: he loves her validation more than he loves her. But paradoxically, the movie also shows that getting this attention can be horrifyingly distressing, and it makes sure that we get that feeling too.
On another level, a more straightforward explanation may be that it is about the relationship between artist and muse. It imagines a perfectly endless loop where inspiration meets creation and satisfaction. But this is perhaps a less interesting and more comfortable way to look at the movie (though somehow also more baffling), as it’s somewhat limiting and it separates the film from the real. In any case, Aronofsky’s films have always been about humanity’s darkest and most disturbing secrets, and mother! strikes an especially deep chord. Maybe it gives fewer answers than you’d like to get from your moviegoing experience, but then again, maybe that’s kind of the point. It’s not made to please you.