Not in recent memory has a big-budget film polarised viewers in such a way that Darren Aronofsky’s latest trippy mind-blower, mother!, appears to have done. And after seeing the film, it’s unsurprising why: Aronofsky adds to his bold canon of sensual, disturbing films with a precariously metaphorical montage of home invasion and Biblical symbolism, carried by an extraordinary Jennifer Lawrence.
I’ve seen Aronofsky’s work before, notably the Academy Award-winning Black Swan, which deals with similar themes of paranoia and mania. However, whilst much of Black Swan is rooted firmly in tangible plot, spectators’ main criticism of mother! highlights a script one could either call underwritten, pretentious, or pure genius.
Though I’m tempted to opt for the latter, I don’t do so without a remainder of uncertainty. The film opens in a sequence of stylised shots establishing Lawrence’s character, Mother, as second fiddle to Javier Bardem’s Poet, a struggling creative whose days revolve solely around producing his next masterpiece. In this context, the film easily plays out like a commentary on today’s standards for women and their roles as emotional labourers, their purpose being to support and uplift their men.
This seems to be the course the movie is intent on taking even when the entrance of Michelle Pfeiffer, Ed Harris and family elevates the plot to absurdity only comparable to the plays of Harold Pinter. However, hints of a deeper and broader allegory do appear, mostly through the recurring motif of a heart within the house’s walls that only Lawrence seems to hear. Call me an English student (you’d not be wrong), but this kind of female-and-house symbiosis reeks of Freudian psychology and suggests the backdrop of an isolated Eden plays a much more important role.
It’s here where you could either think that the movie truly achieves its ‘masterpiece’ status, or else falls apart completely. Through an escalated series of events, Mother’s house doesn’t only become the stage for a family drama, but a microcosm of the universe itself. It’s a daring move for Aronofsky to pull: luring viewers in under the pretence of a horror-thriller, and unveiling an allegory about humanity and nature. I went into mother! having already heard Aronofsky’s explanation of the film’s events, so to me, the film’s third act made a kind of sense. However, I do wonder whether this vision always follows a clear-cut line to its destination. Mother’s pregnancy is a neat, if not standard, way of presenting nature’s vitality and life. The film’s last act is thus shocking because of how Mother and her child suffer in the temple, then war zone, then temple again that her house becomes. It is easily associated to the world today on a larger scale.
But in many ways, the violence and extremity of some scenes seems to suggest that in the end, Aronofsky opted for cheap shocks and sensory overload, rather than a subtle end to a cleverly disturbing film – despite all of his claims of a gruelling rehearsal process and a stroke of creative genius. It must be said that Jennifer Lawrence carries the film with a startling level of sincerity, considering the absurd way that events pan out. But not even her star power can be expected to hold every viewer for long in such an experimental film.
For me, the sheer ambition and originality of a film like this, and its meaningful payoff, was enough to look past the aspects that were less understated. In fact, ‘understated’ probably didn’t register on Aronofsky’s to-do list when making a film to reflect today’s political, social, and literal climate. But to achieve his goal, he surpasses sheer entertainment, and in doing so we’ve got to recognise that losing the average moviegoer along the way is a price he’ll have to pay.