Usurped by chaos
A creative’s mea culpa? An allegory for environmental devastation? Either way, Darren Aronofsky’s ‘mother!’ is an exhausting film.
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Nothing in Darren Aronofsky’s cinema signals either the virtues of restraint or the civilising influence of what’s commonly judged “good taste”. He’s a maximalist, strident and occasionally gauche in his methods, and when this works – the grinding final act of Requiem for a Dream, the panicky, spiralling hallucination of Black Swan – it makes for exhilarating, if exhausting, viewing. When it doesn’t, you get loopy, metaphysical head-scratchers like The Fountain, solemn misfires like Noah, or his latest, the gonzo whatchamacallit known as mother! (in national release).
Note the exclamation point. Which, it must be admitted, Aronofsky does his fair dinkum best to earn. The film is, after all, not a statement (though it desperately longs to be A Statement), but a shout – a righteous howl of indignation and despair. Tonally, it revisits the paranoid-surreal mode of his debut, the scratchy low-budget indie Pi (1998), but materially, it’s a whole other thing: executed on a vastly grander scale – it was financed by Paramount to the tune of about $30 million – and informed by a rather different set of source texts. The Kabbalah is gone, replaced this time by the Book of Revelation. I cannot claim this represents an improvement.
Made largely in secret, mother! premiered at this year’s Venice Film Festival. And no sooner had the press screening concluded than its maker was helping critics with the interpretive heavy-lifting: the film, he declared, was an allegory, inspired by his deep concerns about climate change and forced migrations, man’s limitless inhumanity to man; Jennifer Lawrence’s character (spoiler alert!) was nothing less than Mother Earth herself. “If you think about Day 6 in your history and in your Bibles,” he assured the Hollywood Reporter, “you’ll kind of figure out where the film starts.”
Even more than his claim that the actors rehearsed for three full months (frankly baffling, when you look at the outcome), this statement gave me pause. In our history and our Bibles? What exactly did Aronofsky mean? The sixth day of Creation, presumably – when God made man in His image and gave him “dominion over the fish of the sea, and over the fowl of the heavens, and over every living thing that creepeth upon the earth”. OK – but what was the historical reference? The Six-Day War? The sixth day after Fukushima, or Hurricane Katrina? Something else?
One also found oneself wondering why such exegesis was required. If the text was doing its job, if the story was running smoothly, and every image and sound busy signifying as it should, surely the director’s commentary could wait for the DVD? That Aronofsky felt an immediate need to explain his work suggests a suspicious lack of faith, either in the intelligence of his audience or in his own achievement, or both.
To give him credit, he neatly sidesteps one of the pitfalls of the contemporary horror movie, the question of psychology, since, as in Lars von Trier’s Melancholia – another not-very-good film that sinks beneath its presiding metaphor – no one here behaves remotely like an actual human being. Lawrence plays an unnamed woman (billed in the closing credits only as “mother”, sans punctuation) who lives with her considerably older husband, a famous poet (Javier Bardem), in a house in the woods. It’s his house, we soon learn, entirely rebuilt after a fire. This Craftsman cottage in the shape of a hexagon is the film’s cleverest touch: it not only serves to destabilise the viewer (who never knows precisely where they are in any given scene) but also finally comes to resemble a kind of Dantean hell, a recursive series of levels and torments, absent the possibility of escape.
The poet – billed as “Him”, avec capitalisation – is suffering from writer’s block, and spends most of his days alone in his study, its walls covered in scraps of paper with BIG WORDS scrawled on them, gazing unhappily at a crystal he managed to salvage from the ashes of the old house, an object that might as well be labelled “His Inspiration”.
Mother, meanwhile, is determined to be a dutiful wife and to make his/their house “a paradise”, which mostly entails painting walls in a shabby-chic fashion, and judiciously weighing the respective merits of Nutmeg and Taupe. She’s gravid and fleshy in a semi-transparent singlet top, earthily barefoot. Like an orchid, waiting for some passing bee.
Into this domestic idyll comes a visitor, a gruff, rather awkward older man, helpfully called Man (Ed Harris), whom, to mother’s astonishment, her husband welcomes into the house like a long-lost friend. The next morning sees the arrival of Woman, Man’s wife, played, with icy, vampish allure, by Michelle Pfeiffer. (Who somehow manages, amid the mounting insanity, to actually underplay her role, and so becomes the best thing in the film.) Then come their sons, fractious and unruly – and then others, more and more of them. Before long the house has been invaded, and order has been usurped by chaos.
To my mind, the most frightening horror film of the past decade was Bryan Bertino’s The Strangers (2008). Another home invasion narrative, it was the antithesis of this one: measured both in its set-up and its consummation of terrors. The premise was a model of simplicity: a house in the middle of nowhere, a knock at the door one night … And its tone of strict realism proved invaluable. The couple’s relationship, with its longstanding network of grievances and resentments, rendered them absolutely credible creations. As a result, their suffering was all the more awful to behold.
This film, populated by archetypes undeserving even of proper names, never achieves anything like the same power. Instead, it settles for a succession of minute-by-minute sensations. Unfortunately, there are 120 of those minutes, and you soon come to feel every one. Which is to say, there’s an interminable quality to the film’s rapidly escalating horrors, a distinct feeling, as it goes on, of Oh god, what now? Most of Aronofsky’s stylistic tics are present and accounted for: the grainy 16mm stock; the screen-filling close-ups of a stricken female face; the fades to white to denote chapter divisions. But there’s also a good 15 minutes, as the film enters its final, brutalising stretch, which consists of pretty much the same two shots, repeated over and over: an image of something horrific, followed by a tight close-up of Lawrence’s face, looking either terrified or incredulous. And all the while, she’s given little to do except deliver variations on the same two lines: “What are you doing?” and “Get out!” The spectacle may be extravagant, but the filmic grammar is enervating.
It’s also hard to decide exactly what the film is trying to say, given that there appear to be two parallel and competing metaphors at work. On the one hand, it’s a kind of creative’s mea culpa, a warning about the perils of loving a capital-A artist, who’ll not only always put his work (and, by extension, his audience) ahead of your needs, but will use you up and then discard you when it suits him. Makers of texts are monstrously selfish, the film seems to be saying, because they have to be: the entire burden of creation rests upon their shoulders. (In the Beginning, after all, was the Word.)
But then there’s that whole Mother Earth thing. And the final act, which might charitably be described as “Michael Bay art-house”. It suggests that the film is, in fact, intended to represent humanity’s ongoing devastation of its home – a pantheism that sits uneasily, not only with the artist-metaphor but also with its concurrent deployment of Judeo-Christian imagery: the Cain and Abel intrusion of warring brothers, an evocation of the successive plagues of Egypt, a final, horrifying Eucharist …
So which is it? Is Bardem’s character a Christ figure, obliged to love and lead his followers even unto his own extinction? Or just another self-obsessed arsehole with a three-book deal? Or is he (and I rather suspect this might be the correct answer) Aronofsky himself, asking that we excuse his self-obsession even as he insists we marvel at its result?
Various tropes of Gothic horror – a locked room, a hidden basement, a stolen child – are evoked and just as quickly discarded; the result feels increasingly piecemeal and random. And while there’s undoubtedly an aspect of the film that’s determinedly anti-logic, a piling-on of symbols in a manner familiar from nightmares, you never feel entirely convinced that its maker knows quite what he’s trying to communicate. The sound design, never subtle, becomes oppressive; sensory overload tips towards graphic excess, then fades to an eerily becalmed coda, in which the film’s one unarguable thesis is advanced. And (you’ll pardon me if I sound, for a moment, like a clickbait headline) it’s a shocking one.
Jennifer Lawrence began a relationship with Aronofsky during the making of this film; I suspect, however, its end may be nigh. What is the film’s final shot, if not a frank admission of her dispensability? Artists are pricks, it’s true – like the scorpion, it’s in their nature – but they’re also rapacious. And if mother! leaves you with anything, it’s the certainty that there’s always another pretty young muse available, to be used up and cast aside.
Shane Danielsen is a screenwriter and former artistic director of the Edinburgh International Film Festival.