As I trotted tentatively past the cinema staff on my way into an afternoon screening of Darren Aronofsky’s ‘mother!’, I received a look of pity more commonly reserved for the victims of fatal road accidents. In an effort to lighten the mood, I weakly offered the banal question that all cinema employees are paid to answer untruthfully. ‘So is it any good?’ The man averted his gaze, suddenly captivated by his own thighs. ‘Yeah, it’s..really different.’ He snapped a glance towards his colleague for support. She’d started to gently prod a clean floor with a mop. ‘Right.’
This was not the first time I had been led to believe that capricious director Darren Aronofsky’s latest cinematic venture might be pompous garbage. The New York Observer’s Rex Reed hailed it as the ‘worst movie’ of the ‘century’, and it recently garnered the prestigiously toxic ‘F-grade’ from Cinemascore, a rating derived from the exit reactions of US moviegoers and attributed to a rare few monstrosities indeed.
On this basis, I already felt like I was making headway into a cultural excursion more questionable than a passing glance at Dan Brown’s ‘Inferno’ at Stansted Airport. This feeling wasn’t mitigated by the collection of 19th century convicts sharing the screen with me, who looked like they’d been dredged from surrounding marshland and unanimously sported facial hair comprehensive enough to entrap rodents. No one civilised sees a film whose title ends in an exclamation mark, least of all on a Wednesday lunchtime.
‘mother!’ (yes, it’s supposed to be lower-case) has been billed as a psychological horror/thriller about a married couple (doting housewife Jennifer Lawrence and considerably older struggling poet Javier Bardem) who live their bucolic existence out of a creaky wooden house in the middle of absolutely nowhere. But soon this pastoral serenity is disrupted by the appearance of ‘man’, played by a rubicund Ed Harris (no one is given real human names), who claims to be a local doctor in need of a B & B. And so the two graciously take him in, Harris turns out to be a gushing fan of the poet and his wife (Michelle Pfeiffer) suddenly turns up the next day. And then their sons. And so on.
At first, the ‘horror’ seems to be entirely derived from the familiar torture of uninvited guests overstaying their welcome and abusing the house that Lawrence, also a DIY goddess, has painstakingly restored for her husband after a devastating fire. Pfeiffer is an immediately troublesome presence who struts about the place, ominously tilting her head in conversation like an inquisitive raptor and knocking back ‘lemonades’ that aren’t really lemonades, all the while berating Lawrence for her lack of offspring. Poor Jennifer is not very good at answering back, and is largely confined to racing around the house pleading with people to ‘Get down from there!’ or ‘Stop!’, occasionally with the aid of a massive, steel dustpan and brush that looks like it might be used to dust off war crimes.
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It is difficult to say anything more about the plot. Suffice it to say that things get a bit raucous as more and more people crash through the front door and begin to really upset Lawrence by doing not very charming things like having sex with the door open and urinating on the floor. The third act shoots through so many magnifications of anarchy that it is both hopeless and hilarious to try to keep up.
And the film is darkly funny. As Lawrence goes to check the window and sees thousands working their way through the thicket, lanterns bobbing up to her front door, I stifled a chuckle. But it is also manic, utterly repulsive, and in parts, deeply upsetting. The crowd scenes are aspyhxiatingly claustrophobic, not least because the camera holds on tightened close-ups of Lawrence’s face – indeed, startlingly, Aronofsky has ensured she appears in this way for 66 of the film’s 121 minute run-time. We, as an audience, are ripping away her privacy in tandem with her on-screen ‘guests’. Or perhaps it’s all just a sweet gesture: Lawrence and Aronofsky are, after all, currently dating. But the camera has a nauseating habit of revolving round her head, the precise octagonal backdrop of the rooms behind her morphing into a kaleidoscopic frenzy. It’s a great and discombobulating effect, emblematic of a film that deliberately gives you very little security upon which to comfortably stand.
Fortunately, because none of this sounds like it makes much sense, Aronofsky has made it all allegorical so it doesn’t have to. This has both alienated almost everyone and ushered the rest towards a menagerie of magnetically pretentious theories that try to manipulate every element of the film to match their hasty intellectual frameworks. ‘It’s a fierce polemic against climate change’ they cry. ‘No, it’s clearly an interpretation of Genesis’ moans another. ‘But that doesn’t account for the tacit feminist overtones !’ spits a third.
In truth, the film offers facets of all of these things but consciously rejects settling on any one interpretation. Certainly I was able to predict the direction of the plot with less accuracy than a Bhutanese soothsayer, and I think I once read Genesis. There are more concrete lessons one can take from ‘mother!’ – primarily, that childbirth undoubtedly looks pretty grim and I’m glad I won’t be doing it, and secondly, that this film is far, far too well made to be vociferously scorned by those who simply expected something else. There is no way to expect ‘mother!’. Therein lies its power.
‘mother!’ is directed by Darren Aronofsky