Review – mother! (2017)
Director: Darren Aronofsky
Starring: Jennifer Lawrence, Javier Bardem, Ed Harris, Michelle Pfeiffer, Domhnall Gleeson, Brian Gleeson
After watching Darren Aronofsky’s mother! you are left with a question: ‘Was that a good film?’ But answering that question requires you to first consider a bigger question: ‘What makes a good film?’ Ever the provocateur, Aronofsky has crafted a film that will frustrate and disgust you, making you equal parts uncomfortable and angry. But if, in order to make their point, it was the filmmaker’s intention to draw these negative reactions from the audience, does successfully doing so make it a good film? mother! is the very epitome of ‘not for everyone,’ and the way you answer that last question goes a long way to determining whether this polarising film is for you or not.
An unnamed married couple live alone in a large house in the middle of a circular meadow in the woods. He (Javier Bardem) is a highly regarded poet who has been struggling to write anything for some time. She (Jennifer Lawrence) has been working to painstakingly restore the grand old house, his old family home which had been destroyed in a fire. More than just a hobby, this restoration is a loving act of devotion to her husband. She is connected to this house. With its creaks and groans it is almost like a living organism, and she is in synch with it. One day their solitude is interrupted by a knock at the door. A man (Ed Harris) claiming to be new to town – not that we have seen any evidence of a town – has mistaken their house for a bed and breakfast. Despite Her obvious discomfort, the stranger is invited to stay as long as he wants by Him. The next morning the man’s wife (Michelle Pfeiffer) shows up, and later the pair’s feuding sons (Brian and Domhnall Gleeson). While for the blocked poet they represent a welcome distraction that he greets with a sense of relief, for his wife they are unwanted intruders who exhibit little respect for her or the house and ultimately bring tragedy to their home. But out of this frustrating chapter comes a silver lining, as she falls pregnant. However things are only going to get darker, and weirder, from here.
mother! opens with Bardem’s character standing in the charred remains of his house. In his hand he holds a large crystal. He places it on a stand and from it comes life. This miraculous rejuvenating force spreads through the house, culminating in the bedroom where Lawrence’s character awakes from a slumber. As such, it is really not long into mother! that you stop asking ‘what is happening’ and instead ask ‘what does this mean.’ Where many a mainstream film has been accused of entirely lacking subtext, Aronofsky goes to the opposite extreme. This film is all subtext with no text. Attempting to engage on a purely narrative level is futile. mother! is dealing in allegory, adopting the causal logic and connective tissue of a dream, or rather a nightmare. As with his last feature film, the under-appreciated Noah, Aronofsky appears to be bringing together Biblical and environmental themes. Those familiar with the Genesis creation narrative will recognise the beats in this story of the relationship between creator (in this case a poet) and humanity (house guests), in which Mother Nature (Lawrence’s character is credited as “Mother”) is caught in the middle desiring to please the creator while suffering under people’s disregard for and abuse of the creation.
mother! is an art film disguised by the fact it just happens to feature one of the biggest stars in the world. As such it is going to be more widely seen and scrutinised than a film like this usually would. Jennifer Lawrence has already proven herself a fine actress, but Aronofsky provides her with the opportunity to give a very different type of performance. Whether in the Hunger Games series, Silver Linings Playbook or even the rather disappointing Joy, we are used to seeing Lawrence play powerful, assertive characters. Here she is playing against type. For much of the film her character is entirely passive. Things happen to her, rather than her making them happen. Being put next to the stony faced Bardem serves to emphasise her youth and emotionality, and we feel an instant empathy for her. We, like her, struggle to make sense of everyone else’s behaviour.
This empathy is aided by a stylistic decision from Aronofsky and his regular cinematographer Matthew Libatique which sees the heavy use of close ups. We spend a lot of time uncomfortably close to her face, watching her reactions to the things that are happening. The tight angles and ever moving camera serve to enhance the natural claustrophobia that comes from having the entire story unfold within the house, particularly as more and more characters arrive. Where usually a film being described as confronting is an assessment of its thematic content, with mother! Aronofsky has crafted a visually uncomfortable and disconcerting experience to heighten the narrative.
mother! is an audacious, challenging film. You can love it or you can hate it, but it is almost impossible to be indifferent to. Regardless of whether you love it or loathe it, you will likely come out of it never wanting to see it again, though you may well need to.
Review by Duncan McLean
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