Thursday 7 September 2017

mother! (US 2017: Dir Darren Aronofsky)

In Darren Aronofsky’s deeply allegorical and stunning mother! Jennifer Lawrence is a young woman who has moved into a huge ‘fixer upper’ house in an unspecified location with her poet husband Javier Bardem – in the credits she is ‘mother’ and he is, well, ‘HIM.’ She’s done all the fixer-upping following a fire which has previously devastated the house, while he has been struggling with writer’s block, hasn’t written a thing for months, and seems rather distant from her.

Into this rather imbalanced and awkward setup an older guy (Ed Harris) arrives at the front door, mistakenly thinking it’s a B&B. Bardem quickly befriends the man and invites him to stay overnight – the first in a series of unwanted occupations of the house (at least by Lawrence’s character) that drive the drama of the film - and soon Harris is joined by his drunken wife (a superb, witty performance by Michelle Pfeiffer – so good to have her back on our screens again) and later their bickering sons.

Tragedy strikes when one of the offspring is seriously wounded following a fight about Harris's will (he is dying and has actually come to the house to meet ‘HIM’ being a big fan of the poet’s work). Harris subsequently becomes ill and the party, including Bardem, leave ‘mother’ alone to go in search of a hospital. Lawrence is left to mop up the blood from the fight and discovers a strange, almost fleshlike bleeding hole in the floor. Soon Bardem returns, not on his own but with a party of mourners; the wounded son has died. At Lawrence’s insistence the party are asked to leave the house, which seems to precipitate a defrosting between husband and wife – as a result ‘mother’ becomes, er, an expectant mother and Bardem's character starts writing again. But as Lawrence nears full term, the poet’s latest work, clearly the best thing he’s ever produced, draws a growing crowd of fans to the house to meet their hero. And then the third house invasion begins.

It’s probably best to watch mother! as a connected series of extended dream sequences, faithfully recreating the (il)logic and anxiety of the nightmare. Bunuel’s 1962 movie The Exterminating Angel, with its bourgeois dinner party guests reverting to their base instincts after being mysteriously trapped in a house, is clearly an influence. Lawrence’s inability as a pregnant woman to influence her charming but evasive husband has more than a whiff of Guy and Rosemary Woodhouse in Polanski’s 1968 movie Rosemary’s Baby; the house as a living breathing prison conjures visions of the same director’s Repulsion (1965) and the paranoia levels evoke that film and also his The Tenant (1976).

Jennifer Lawrence in Darren Aronofsky's mother!
The descent into hell of the final reel is a bold move, and its grand guignol touches (actually great big splashes) are excessive but accommodated because of the rising sense of tension and unease generated by the film’s previous ninety minutes. Nothing in mother! is an easy watch but the final twenty minutes is, even by Aranofsky’s standards, a macabre tour de force. Lawrence and Bardem are both fantastic in their roles – much of the movie shoots in close up, showing both the differences in age and disposition between the two actors. It’s extraordinary stuff, but I was unsure of how seriously to take everything. After all, what to make of a swishing knife sound accompanying the addition of the exclamation mark to the movie’s title at the start of the film?

Although the film can be read as the study of a marriage in crisis (and also therefore biographically via what we know of Aronofsky's personal life), in terms of what lies behind the movie’s more opaque allegorical tendencies, two clues give us a possible interpretation. One is an interview in Sight and Sound magazine, where the director hints about his continuing interest in the environment, what we’re doing to it and the impact of its neglect (and lest we forget his previous film Noah was his attempt to take a non-religious view of the same subject). The other is a poem, punted out as part of the teaser publicity for the film, called mother’s prayer. This has been adapted by feminist writer Rebecca Solnit and is an entreaty to mother nature, worshipping the pattern of the seasons and asking for deliverance ‘from wanton consumption’ of the earth.  So it’s possible to view the birth/rebirth/regeneration themes of the movie as analogous to the cycles of nature, with the house as our valuable planet, and the unwelcome occupants the wanton consumers. Or something.

mother! is an extraordinary film however you approach it. It’s certainly a career best for Jennifer Lawrence and arguably Darren Aranofsky too. It’s a wild ride, bizarrely playful but deadly serious – a real force of nature. 

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