A full house of horrors
Darren Aronofsky’s darkly comic blend of home-invasion nightmare and eco-parable takes some digesting – but it’s worth it
(121 mins, 18) Directed by Darren Aronofsky; starring Jennifer Lawrence, Javier Bardem, Michelle Pfeiffer
“Nothing is ever enough – I couldn’t create if it was!” You have to admire writer- director Darren Aronofsky’s almost religious devotion to the parable-like possibilities of hyperventilating, surrealist cinema. Having caught critics’ attention with the cult low-budget sci-fi oddity Pi and proved his gritty mettle with
Requiem for a Dream , Aronofsky gave us time-straddling cosmic madness in
The Fountain , combined ballet with metamorphic fantasy in Black Swan, and conjured gigantic rock-monsters in the quasi-biblical babble-fest
Noah. Now with mother!, a paranoid nightmare that starts out like Polanski’s Repulsion and winds up closer to
Apocalypse Now, he has stretched the envelope of outrageous mainstream cinema to breaking point – and beyond.
We start and end in flames, with an image of a fiery face giving way to a mysterious crystal, which breathes life and light into a charred, blackened house. This is the home of Javier Bardem’s “Him” (all characters are unnamed), nurtured anew by Jennifer Lawrence’s devoted wife. Octagonal in shape, the house variously resembles a vast temple and a panopticon prison, with a sinister hint of the haunted lair from The Amityville Horror. It is a living presence, with a heartbeat that thrums through its walls and floorboards, umbilically linked to Lawrence’s barefoot “mother” who harbours as-yet-unrealised dreams of parenthood.
Within this Edenic idyll, Bardem’s jaded poet is failing to write his masterpiece – until the arrival of a mysterious stranger (Ed Harris) and his glamorous, garrulous spouse (Michelle Pfeiffer) tickles his egotistical fancy. Seemingly blind to his wife’s nesting instincts, the poet revels in the adoring chaos these outsiders bring. Gradually, mother!’ s anxieties about breach of privacy turn to something closer to home invasion horror, with the narrative straying into the territory of Graham Greene’s short story The Destructors. And then things start getting wild at heart and crazy on top.
Aronofsky has said that the first draft of mother! poured out of him in a five- day “fever dream” and it’s tempting to review the result in similarly spontaneous fashion. Yet more than any other of Aronofsky’s works, this is a film that demands distance and decompression. In the screening room I found mother! an increasingly exasperating experience – a claustrophobic exercise in ghastly black comedy; relentless, ridiculous, and occasionally panic-inducing. Yet give it time to settle, and the labour pains of watching mother! produce something that you could grow to love.
The narrative can be read in any number of ways: as a Rosemary’s Baby - style expression of antenatal paranoia; as a war-of-the-sexes fable about older men feeding upon the support of younger women; even as a simple tale of marital breakdown. Yet there’s clearly an overarching allegory here about impending eco-catastrophe and the mistreatment of Mother Earth. Aronofsky is understandably cagey about specific meanings, but he’s spoken of the film as “a snapshot of the world” threatened by overpopulation, climate change, poisonous politics and war. For him, this is a tale of “a woman who is asked to give and give and give until she can give nothing more”.
This is familiar territory for Aronofsky, who cast Russell Crowe as a fundamentalist eco-warrior in
Noah, but then left it up to Jennifer Connelly’s nurturing Naameh to lend an engaging human face to his antihero’s swivel-eyed ravings. Indeed, one might see mother! as a sister movie to Noah’s “father!”, a revisiting of the Genesis myth with its own Cain and Abel in the shape of Domhnall and
Aronofsky has stretched the envelope of outrageous mainstream cinema to breaking point
Brian Gleeson, and featuring Bardem as an insufferably smug divinity. It’s certainly a tale of false messiahs, evoking the recurrent chant from the third act of Tommy (“there’s more at the door”) with the declaration that “The poet says it’s everyone’s house!”
Throughout this escalating madness, cinematographer Matthew Libatique keeps his widescreen lens close to Lawrence, peering over her shoulder, pushing into her face, capturing her singular point of view in long takes that echo Maryse Alberti’s pursuit of Mickey Rourke in The Wrestler. This is first-person cinema, a subjective sensory experience, part waking dream, part walking nightmare. Unsurprisingly, Aronofsky cites Buñuel’s The Exterminating Angel as influential, although horror fans may find themselves recalling the insane grotesqueries of Ruggero Deodato, along with the pulsating plastic realities of David Cronenberg ’s Videodrome .
As for me, the further away I get from mother!, the closer it moves to my heart. It’s a delirious, disgraceful experience – just make sure you give it space to breathe.
‘Relentless, ridiculous, panicinducing’: Jennifer Lawrence and Javier Bardem in mother!.