Nobody who’s seen Requiem for a Dream or Black Swan expects an easy ride from Darren Aronofsky, but his latest film still manages to blindside you, setting up what first appears to be a gentle farce before sucker-punching you with some of the most gleefully heinous imagery you’re likely to see this year.
It follows an unnamed couple, a former rock-star poet with a bad case of writer’s block (Javier Bardem), and his timid young wife (Jennifer Lawrence). At some point in the past, the isolated old house they share was destroyed in a fire, and Lawrence’s character has devoted her life to painstakingly rebuilding it from the ashes, in the hope her husband’s mojo (both poetic and sexual) will return.
Their bucolic bliss is interrupted by a knock on the door. A man (Ed Harris) who claims to be lost comes in for a night-cap, ends up staying in the spare room, invites over his bitchy, boozy wife (Michelle Pfeiffer in an inspired return to the big screen), then his quarrelling kids, and suddenly the house is full of people, smoking cigarettes, making a mess, sitting on the sink which has not been braced yet, damnit! Where did they come from? What the hell is going on? There’s a scene that takes place just as things are about to flip from “pretty bad” to “absolutely, unfathomably awful”, in which a wake is held in the house. Lawrence’s character wanders from room to room, inconsolable at the destruction, the camera hugging her maternally. Then her mouth drops as she spots someone... painting?
“Why are you painting my house?” she pleads. It’s a brilliant, funny, terrifying image, capturing the character’s – and by extension our own – utter incomprehension of what’s going on.
I’ve heard Mother! billed as a horror movie, which it definitely isn’t (although it’s certainly horrific), but it doesn’t fit easily into any other genre, either. The first act is close to the surreal farce of Luis Buñuel’s The Discreet Charm of the Bourgeoisie, sharing the same dark humour and nightmarish repetition.
Mother! follows the structure that’s defined Aronofsky’s work since Pi back in 1999, starting out light, sharp and wryly funny before slowly turning up the heat. Aronofsky builds tension like a conductor dragging a crescendo from a reluctant orchestra, the violins all out of tune, the trombone hitting the wrong notes. By the end it’s just noise, the fabric of the film having broken down, cause and effect abandoned in favour of disconnected, dreamlike sequences.
The entire film takes place in the same beautiful old house, giving it a theatrical quality, and the tone brings to mind the plays of Sarah Kane. Like the playwright, Aronofsky sets out to provoke a reaction – there are already reports of people fainting mid-film – and like Kane’s plays, Mother! certainly isn’t for everyone. There’s an element of masochism to the final reel, a pleasure to be gained from bearing the weight of these terrible images, a pride in being able to find a warped beauty in them.
Aronofsky says the film was inspired by his feelings of helplessness in the face of climate change, and there’s fun to be had in retrospectively applying this reading (Lawrence, always barefoot, is mother nature; Bardem defiles her lovingly created space with overpopulation, filth, and conflict).
But it’s more obviously about the brutality of the creative process (which Aronofsky appears to hate), the toxic ego of (male) artists and the destructive nature of celebrity. If that is the case, Lawrence should watch out: she’s now dating Aronofsky, an older man, a rock-star poet of modern cinema... Heaven help her.