Dar­ren Aronof­sky’s mother!

Shane Danielsen on Dar­ren Aronof­sky’s mother!

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Noth­ing in Dar­ren Aronof­sky’s cinema sig­nals ei­ther the virtues of re­straint or the civil­is­ing in­flu­ence of what’s com­monly judged “good taste”. He’s a max­i­mal­ist, stri­dent and oc­ca­sion­ally gauche in his meth­ods, and when this works – the grind­ing fi­nal act of Re­quiem for a Dream, the pan­icky, spi­ralling hal­lu­ci­na­tion of Black Swan – it makes for ex­hil­a­rat­ing, if ex­haust­ing, view­ing. When it doesn’t, you get loopy, meta­phys­i­cal head-scratch­ers like The Foun­tain, solemn mis­fires like Noah, or his lat­est, the gonzo whatchamacal­lit known as mother! (in na­tional re­lease).

Note the ex­cla­ma­tion point. Which, it must be ad­mit­ted, Aronof­sky does his fair dinkum best to earn. The film is, after all, not a state­ment (though it des­per­ately longs to be A State­ment), but a shout – a right­eous howl of in­dig­na­tion and de­spair. Tonally, it re­vis­its the para­noid-sur­real mode of his de­but, the scratchy low-bud­get in­die Pi (1998), but ma­te­ri­ally, it’s a whole other thing: ex­e­cuted on a vastly grander scale – it was fi­nanced by Para­mount to the tune of about $30 mil­lion – and in­formed by a rather dif­fer­ent set of source texts. The Kab­balah is gone, re­placed this time by the Book of Rev­e­la­tion. I can­not claim this rep­re­sents an im­prove­ment.

Made largely in se­cret, mother! pre­miered at this year’s Venice Film Fes­ti­val. And no sooner had the press screen­ing con­cluded than its maker was help­ing crit­ics with the in­ter­pre­tive heavy-lift­ing: the film, he de­clared, was an al­le­gory, in­spired by his deep con­cerns about cli­mate change and forced mi­gra­tions, man’s lim­it­less in­hu­man­ity to man; Jen­nifer Lawrence’s char­ac­ter (spoiler alert!) was noth­ing less than Mother Earth her­self. “If you think about Day 6 in your his­tory and in your Bi­bles,” he as­sured the Hol­ly­wood Re­porter, “you’ll kind of fig­ure out where the film starts.”

Even more than his claim that the ac­tors re­hearsed for three full months (frankly baf­fling, when you look at the out­come), this state­ment gave me pause. In our his­tory and our Bi­bles? What ex­actly did Aronof­sky mean? The sixth day of Cre­ation, pre­sum­ably – when God made man in His im­age and gave him “do­min­ion over the fish of the sea, and over the fowl of the heav­ens, and over ev­ery liv­ing thing that creep­eth upon the earth”. OK – but what was the his­tor­i­cal ref­er­ence? The Six-Day War? The sixth day after Fukushima, or Hur­ri­cane Ka­t­rina? Some­thing else?

One also found one­self won­der­ing why such ex­e­ge­sis was re­quired. If the text was do­ing its job, if the story was run­ning smoothly, and ev­ery im­age and sound busy sig­ni­fy­ing as it should, surely the di­rec­tor’s com­men­tary could wait for the DVD? That Aronof­sky felt an im­me­di­ate need to ex­plain his work sug­gests a sus­pi­cious lack of faith, ei­ther in the in­tel­li­gence of his au­di­ence or in his own achieve­ment, or both.

To give him credit, he neatly side­steps one of the pit­falls of the con­tem­po­rary hor­ror movie, the ques­tion of psy­chol­ogy, since, as in Lars von Trier’s Melan­cho­lia – another not-very-good film that sinks beneath its pre­sid­ing metaphor – no one here be­haves re­motely like an ac­tual hu­man be­ing. Lawrence plays an un­named woman (billed in the clos­ing cred­its only as “mother”, sans punc­tu­a­tion) who lives with her con­sid­er­ably older hus­band, a fa­mous poet (Javier Bar­dem), in a house in the woods. It’s his house, we soon learn, en­tirely re­built after a fire. This Crafts­man cot­tage in the shape of a hexagon is the film’s clever­est touch: it not only serves to desta­bilise

the viewer (who never knows pre­cisely where they are in any given scene) but also fi­nally comes to re­sem­ble a kind of Dan­tean hell, a re­cur­sive se­ries of lev­els and tor­ments, ab­sent the pos­si­bil­ity of es­cape.

The poet – billed as “Him”, avec cap­i­tal­i­sa­tion – is suf­fer­ing from writer’s block, and spends most of his days alone in his study, its walls cov­ered in scraps of pa­per with BIG WORDS scrawled on them, gaz­ing un­hap­pily at a crys­tal he man­aged to sal­vage from the ashes of the old house, an ob­ject that might as well be la­belled “His In­spi­ra­tion”.

Mother, mean­while, is de­ter­mined to be a du­ti­ful wife and to make his/their house “a par­adise”, which mostly en­tails paint­ing walls in a shabby-chic fash­ion, and ju­di­ciously weigh­ing the re­spec­tive mer­its of Nut­meg and Taupe. She’s gravid and fleshy in a semi-trans­par­ent sin­glet top, earth­ily bare­foot. Like an orchid, wait­ing for some pass­ing bee.

Into this do­mes­tic idyll comes a vis­i­tor, a gruff, rather awk­ward older man, help­fully called Man (Ed Har­ris), whom, to mother’s as­ton­ish­ment, her hus­band wel­comes into the house like a long-lost friend. The next morn­ing sees the ar­rival of Woman, Man’s wife, played, with icy, vamp­ish allure, by Michelle Pfeif­fer. (Who some­how man­ages, amid the mount­ing in­san­ity, to ac­tu­ally un­der­play her role, and so be­comes the best thing in the film.) Then come their sons, frac­tious and un­ruly – and then oth­ers, more and more of them. Be­fore long the house has been in­vaded, and order has been usurped by chaos.

To my mind, the most fright­en­ing hor­ror film of the past decade was Bryan Bertino’s The Strangers (2008). Another home in­va­sion nar­ra­tive, it was the an­tithe­sis of this one: mea­sured both in its set-up and its con­sum­ma­tion of ter­rors. The premise was a model of sim­plic­ity: a house in the mid­dle of nowhere, a knock at the door one night … And its tone of strict re­al­ism proved in­valu­able. The cou­ple’s re­la­tion­ship, with its long­stand­ing net­work of griev­ances and re­sent­ments, ren­dered them ab­so­lutely cred­i­ble cre­ations. As a re­sult, their suf­fer­ing was all the more aw­ful to be­hold.

This film, pop­u­lated by archetypes un­de­serv­ing even of proper names, never achieves any­thing like the same power. In­stead, it set­tles for a suc­ces­sion of minute-by-minute sen­sa­tions. Un­for­tu­nately, there are 120 of those min­utes, and you soon come to feel ev­ery one. Which is to say, there’s an in­ter­minable qual­ity to the film’s rapidly es­ca­lat­ing hor­rors, a dis­tinct feel­ing, as it goes on, of Oh god, what now? Most of Aronof­sky’s stylis­tic tics are present and ac­counted for: the grainy 16mm stock; the screen-fill­ing close-ups of a stricken fe­male face; the fades to white to de­note chap­ter di­vi­sions. But there’s also a good 15 min­utes, as the film en­ters its fi­nal, bru­tal­is­ing stretch, which con­sists of pretty much the same two shots, re­peated over and over: an im­age of some­thing hor­rific, fol­lowed by a tight close-up of Lawrence’s face, look­ing ei­ther ter­ri­fied or in­cred­u­lous. And all the while, she’s given lit­tle to do ex­cept de­liver variations on the same two lines: “What are you do­ing?” and “Get out!” The spec­ta­cle may be ex­trav­a­gant, but the filmic gram­mar is en­er­vat­ing.

It’s also hard to de­cide ex­actly what the film is try­ing to say, given that there ap­pear to be two par­al­lel and com­pet­ing metaphors at work. On the one hand, it’s a kind of cre­ative’s mea culpa, a warn­ing about the per­ils of lov­ing a cap­i­tal-A artist, who’ll not only al­ways put his work (and, by ex­ten­sion, his au­di­ence) ahead of your needs, but will use you up and then dis­card you when it suits him. Mak­ers of texts are mon­strously self­ish, the film seems to be say­ing, be­cause they have to be: the en­tire bur­den of cre­ation rests upon their shoul­ders. (In the Be­gin­ning, after all, was the Word.)

But then there’s that whole Mother Earth thing. And the fi­nal act, which might char­i­ta­bly be de­scribed as “Michael Bay art-house”. It sug­gests that the film is, in fact, in­tended to rep­re­sent hu­man­ity’s on­go­ing dev­as­ta­tion of its home – a pan­the­ism that sits un­easily, not only with the artist-metaphor but also with its con­cur­rent de­ploy­ment of Judeo-Chris­tian im­agery: the Cain and Abel in­tru­sion of war­ring broth­ers, an evo­ca­tion of the suc­ces­sive plagues of Egypt, a fi­nal, hor­ri­fy­ing Eucharist …

So which is it? Is Bar­dem’s char­ac­ter a Christ fig­ure, obliged to love and lead his fol­low­ers even unto his own ex­tinc­tion? Or just another self-ob­sessed ar­se­hole with a three-book deal? Or is he (and I rather sus­pect this might be the cor­rect an­swer) Aronof­sky him­self, ask­ing that we ex­cuse his self-ob­ses­sion even as he in­sists we marvel at its re­sult?

Var­i­ous tropes of Gothic hor­ror – a locked room, a hidden base­ment, a stolen child – are evoked and just as quickly dis­carded; the re­sult feels in­creas­ingly piece­meal and ran­dom. And while there’s un­doubt­edly an as­pect of the film that’s de­ter­minedly anti-logic, a pil­ing-on of sym­bols in a man­ner fa­mil­iar from night­mares, you never feel en­tirely con­vinced that its maker knows quite what he’s try­ing to com­mu­ni­cate. The sound de­sign, never sub­tle, be­comes op­pres­sive; sen­sory over­load tips to­wards graphic ex­cess, then fades to an eerily be­calmed coda, in which the film’s one unar­guable the­sis is ad­vanced. And (you’ll par­don me if I sound, for a mo­ment, like a click­bait head­line) it’s a shock­ing one.

Jen­nifer Lawrence be­gan a re­la­tion­ship with Aronof­sky dur­ing the mak­ing of this film; I sus­pect, how­ever, its end may be nigh. What is the film’s fi­nal shot, if not a frank ad­mis­sion of her dis­pens­abil­ity? Artists are pricks, it’s true – like the scor­pion, it’s in their na­ture – but they’re also ra­pa­cious. And if mother! leaves you with any­thing, it’s the cer­tainty that there’s al­ways another pretty young muse avail­able, to be used up and cast aside.

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