Darren Aronofsky’s phantasmagoric fantasia on art, fame, success, religion, politics and the cult of celebrity erupts relentlessly and furiously. It is the angriest, most dynamic film I’ve seen this year, and probably the best film hailing from the US (although it seems to have been shot in Quebec).
A fable or parable rather than a story centred in anything close to realism, utilising horror elements including an honest-to-goodness haunted house, mother! – the lower-case “m” and the exclamation mark are specific – is a wild and mesmerising ride, and should leave most engaged viewers with plenty to chew on. It is full of ideas.
Jennifer Lawrence plays “mother”, married to “Him”, played by Javier Bardem in a role that is perfectly suited to his bulky, über-masculine and tremendously charismatic middle age. They live in his gorgeous old Victorian house in the middle of the woods; she is restoring it after it was decimated in a fire; he – a celebrated poet (!) – is trying to break a serious case of writer’s block. They have no children, and seem happy despite a certain frostiness and a rather blatant discrepancy in their power dynamic. Then, one day, completely out of the blue, a “man” (Ed Harris) knocks on the front door, and their lives start turning to shit.
Aronofsky and his cinematographer Matthew Libatique, shooting on handheld Super 16 Millimetre, have made a massive and sustained choice, which is to shoot about 85% of the film – that’s my conservative estimate – directly in front of Lawrence’s face or directly behind her head, gluing us to her and her point of view. It is effective, to be sure, but also frustrating, as her head looms so large, mostly in the centre of the frame, that it becomes irritating – you want to push it out of the way. I even wondered if the device was giving me a minor headache, combined, as it is, with a single, pretty dark location (the interiors of the old, gloomy, wooden house), a camera that literally never stops moving, and the grain of the 16mm film. This choice, and this effect, certainly were to the detriment of my enjoyment.
As for everything else, though – it’s pretty wonderful. This is delirious, obsessive auteurism at its most enabled: you’ve got budget, the world’s “biggest female star”, and the seeming complete lack of any control outside of the creator’s whims. It is a direct portal into the author’s soul – and at this level, some may be disturbed in a way that has nothing to do with any of the film’s creepy imagery or performances. The fact is that in the real world, Lawrence and Aronofsky are now in a relationship. There are twenty-two years between them, which aligns pretty well with the age gap between Lawrence and Bardem. And Aronofsky has a ten year old son from a previous relationship. All this taken together may make mother! a deeply personal movie, and the more personal it is to Aronofsky’s life and interior beliefs, the more disturbing it is. Indeed, if one was to take a particular reading of the film – and one which is certainly there to be read – one could only conclude that Aronofsky was a monster of vanity, ego and self-obsession.
I’m not sure it’s that. Knowing some of the things that have happened to Lawrence – such as naked photos of her being published without her permission – I think the director’s main target here is modern, obsessive fandom and its relationship to modern, idiotic notions of celebrity. He takes this, ties it to Jesus, throws in Cain and Abel and a bunch of other biblical stuff (he directed Noah, don’t forget, and Bardem’s character is specifically called “Him” with a capital “H”) and sprinkles our current, insane moment in political history on top. Essentially, the film is a furious attack on the world we’ve created for ourselves, and asks a pretty simple question: Why in hell would anyone want to bring a child into that?