As a filmmaker, Darren Aronofsky has never been one to shy away from the extremes of human behaviour, whether exploring its darkest heart, exposing its deepest psychosis or celebrating its brightest achievements. His latest, mother!, is thematically similar to his Oscar-winning Black Swan, in that it embraces both the lure and lunacy of artistic ambition. Whereas Black Swan was a beguiling, beautifully crafted psychological drama, however, this is an infuriating exercise of cacophonous style over substance.
Shouting at garish volume, mother! clearly believes itself to be making insightful statements about universal themes of love, faith, art, religion and even maternal anxiety but, underneath all its baroque bluster, is interested in nothing but its own self-importance.
A poet (Javier Bardem) and his much younger (and newly pregnant) wife (Jennifer Lawrence) – both unnamed – live in a house in the middle of nowhere. Whereas she is consumed by her passion for him, and by restoring his fire-damaged house into the perfect family sanctuary, he is obsessed with finishing his masterwork. While he has a life outside of her – and outside of the house – she remains cloistered within its walls, where her only responsibility is to service his needs, artistic and marital.
Their supposed idyll is interrupted by the sudden arrival of a phlegmy, seriously ill doctor (Ed Harris), his vampy wife (Michelle Pfieffer) and their violent sons, who proceed to engage in a Cane and Abel-esque bloody duel in the hallway. Therein follows a steady stream of uninvited guests who begin to overrun the house, to the delight of the poet, who enjoys their attentions, and the increasing consternation of his ignored wife.
By the time the interlopers have escalated from misusing the bedrooms to staging a fiery apocalypse in the front room (and all as she labours with her child, her surroundings literally shaking with each contraction) she has been driven near madness by the nightmarish intrusion. Yet, all the while her husband is determined to cast himself as the object of adoration for the violent masses; and will stop at nothing to ensure their continued devotion.
The fact that none of its characters are named suggests that mother! is open to interpretation and, as it progresses, the film seems to be making various points about religion and, more specifically, the modern cult of celebrity and the unchecked male ego. While its message may be frustratingly fluid, and heavy-handed symbolism rampant, creativity and creation are its overarching themes.
From its deliberately reductive title to its intimate focus on Lawrence – whose astonishing performance together with Matthew Libatique’s immersive camerawork are the film’s highlights – it’s clear that Aronofsky is expressly concerned with the role of women on the human and cultural stage. The fact that the film’s credits list Bardem’s character as ‘Him’ and Lawrence’s as ‘Mother’ is a nod to the fact that men are defined by themselves, and women by their service.
That women play supporting, and often throwaway roles, in the pursuits of men, be they cinematic or real, divine, supernatural or everyday, is explicitly detailed. While her husband suffers for his art – and how agonised he is in his search for literary perfection – Lawrence’s character simply suffers as she seeks validation from an immature, distant and egomaniacal husband.
To add to her existential woes, everyone who enters the house seems to have an opinion of her, her relationship and her impending motherhood, which they feel the need to burden her with. He, of course, is spared any such judgements. Mother only finds something of her own strength when she fulfils her biological duty and gives birth (to a son, of course). But it’s still nowhere near enough in the face of her partner’s now psychopathic ego.
The devaluation of women is a valid point, and many will applaud Aronofsky for ‘daring’ to make it. Yet, like so many filmmakers before him, including Alex Garland (Ex_Machina) and Jonathan Glazer (Under The Skin), he seemingly fails to appreciate that self-awareness isn’t a free pass. To subjugate women in order to condemn the subjugation of women isn’t perceptive commentary, or even provocative art; it’s lazy, obvious and offensively self-aggrandising bullshit.
As we witness Lawrence driven to the brink of madness by her husband’s appalling behaviour, relentless sequences of unimaginable loss and unspeakable cruelty with the camera tight on her agonised face, any social commentary is entirely overwhelmed, and made moot, by this wilfully exploitative imagery. Aronofsky also pushes the limits of cinematic taboo for the purposes of visual frenzy, and nothing else. While you could read religious parable into the horrific treatment of this woman and her son, by a man who would sacrifice them both for his own ends, it’s certainly not overt enough to warrant such a bombast of brutality.
mother! is not the film it thinks it is, and most certainly not the unique and uncompromising vision that many will undoubtedly proclaim it to be. It’s all so infuriatingly familiar, and not just in its (surely intentional) nods to horrors like Rosemary’s Baby, The Shining and myriad other films in which malevolent houses ooze blood – although, admittedly, rarely from vagina-shaped wounds in the floorboards. Underneath its whizz bang illusions of originality, it’s clunkingly obvious that Aronofsky is telling the same old tired story.
And, by the time we watch – in visceral, painful detail – Jennifer Lawrence make the ultimate sacrifice for a love that, she is explicitly told, is simply not enough, we have well and truly reached the end of the yellow brick road. And, behind the green curtain, lies yet another filmmaker who truly believes he’s discovered some new way of making a sweeping, desperately important – and feminist! – statement, but has, in fact, served up another helping of mundane misogynistic misery.
UK release: September 15, 2017
An edited version of this review was first published at The List