Mother!

September 21, 2017
Mother! The poster says everything & nothing
Mother! The poster says everything & nothing

For want of a better term one would have to call Darren Aronofsky’s bizarre, polarising Mother! a ‘horror movie’, but he has really invented a new kind of film that offers several strong lines of interpretation under the umbrella of a grandiose cosmic vision.

Most horror flicks have a pretty basic structure: those who offend against conventional morality or break a taboo, will meet a grisly end. Mother! takes matters much further. Even though the film owes much of its attraction to the star power of Jennifer Lawrence, it’s a wildly ambitious project for a mainstream studio. The plot is bound to cause confusion, at least until the central metaphor is discovered. From this point everything becomes clear, if not exactly transparent.

A fiery opening sequence alerts us to some serious weirdness ahead, but the first act is a domestic idyll. Jennifer Lawrence is the young wife of a famous poet, played by Javier Bardem. The couple have settled in a big old house in the country which has been in Bardem’s family for generations, having been rebuilt after a fire. Lawrence spends her time restoring the place while her husband waits for inspiration to strike. Please note, in this movie nobody actually has a name.

Life is sweet until a knock at the door brings Ed Harris into the picture. An orthopaedic surgeon with a raking smoker’s cough, he claims to be looking for a bed & breakfast. He is also, as it transpires, a big fan of Bardem’s work. Within a few minutes Bardem has invited this stranger to stay the night – a spontaneous act of hospitality that takes Lawrence by surprise.

Soon Michelle Pfeiffer turns up, playing Harris’s sharp-tongued, pushy wife. Bardem is delighted to have the couple as guests, but their behaviour is so ill-mannered and intrusive that Lawrence feels as if the sanctity of the home is being violated. As the obnoxious intruders, Harris and Pfeiffer are like characters from a Harold Pinter play. Lawrence is stunned by her husband’s generosity, which takes no account whatsover of her own wishes.

Worse is to come – much worse – as the guests’ sons appear at the door, and simmering animosities turn violent. By this stage we are starting to lose touch with reality as the action becomes ever more inexplicable. We were already wondering why Lawrence keeps having visions of a red, foetal shape when she touches the walls. We’re equally puzzled about those regular mini-seizures that can only be cured with some yellow liquid from a bottle in the bathroom cabinet.

Ultimately these mysteries seem secondary to the really big one, namely: “Why is Bardem being so nice to such appalling people?” In the face of his wife’s gasping bewilderment he can make excuses for any outrage.

She suspects it’s a function of writer’s block, as he avoids sitting down to work on the long-awaited book. Is he drawing literary sustenance from these grotesques? When he finally does manage to complete his opus the consequences are beyond all reckoning. To say more would be to reveal too much.

It’s obvious that Mother! is an allegory of some sort but it takes time to comprehend the outlandish conceit Aronofsky has ventured. Some will find it pretentious, but its boldness can’t be disputed. As the director has been willing to discuss his ideas in interviews, I trust I’m not spoiling anything if I tell you that Bardem is God the Creator and Lawrence is Mother Nature. This makes it only slightly easier to understand what’s going on.

The story may owe a debt to Aronofsky’s previous movie, Noah (2014) – a bombastic effort strangled at birth by the demands of a big studio. The director must have felt there was a lot more that could be done with the Book of Genesis. There’s also a touch of Luis Bunuel and David Lynch.

Beyond the Biblical references Mother! is the ultimate ‘invasion of privacy’ film, as Lawrence watches her lovingly restored home being trashed by selfish, aggressive strangers.

It’s also a terrifying meditation on the nature of fame, with Bardem soaking up adoration from his fans while trampling his wife’s feelings. Those fans are not satisfied with an autograph, they believe the poet is writing about their own lives and dreams. They love him with a murderous rapture.

Finally there is Lawrence’s pregnancy, and a delivery that raises the bar to new heights for degree of difficulty. In comparison, Rosemary’s Baby seems like a suburban bubs’ party. Because we’ve spent so much of the movie looking at Lawrence’s disarmingly beautiful and open face in a series of tight close-ups, the final round of horror and despoilation is all the more disturbing.

Mother! presents a singularly bleak view of human nature and of the future of the planet. Perhaps only poets will find a positive, in the extraordinary hero-worship Bardem inspires in his fans. If all poetry had this power there would be a good case to classify it as a weapon of mass destruction.

Mother!
Written & directed by Darren Aronofsky
Starring Jennifer Lawrence, Javier Bardem, Michelle Pfeiffer, Ed Harris, Brian Gleeson, Domhnall Gleeson, Kristen Wiig
USA, rated M, 121 mins

Published in the Australian Financial Review, 23 September, 2017