Darren Aronofsky is known for having a strong psychological element to his works. Black Swan being a prime example of his masterful way of building story and meaning, as well as a sense of the unreal, through imagery. He is good at rendering the inner turmoil of a character as an outer manifestation and isn’t afraid to get ugly or dark, as those of you who’ve seen Requiem For A Dream will know all to well. His latest offering is mother! which the director penned over the course of five days, pouring out the darkness and confusion in his psyche and creating a film.
Whilst the film opens with an unamed couple, played by Jennifer Lawrence and Javier Bardem, living a slightly troubled relationship in their idyllic house, whose paradise is soon invaded by unexpected gusests, the film soon becomes something else entirely, throwing imagery and terror at you at an alarming and increasingly escalating rate.
The entire focus of the film is on Jennifer Lawrence’s character. The camera follows her through her house, which is the sole location of the film. It’s a house that was her husband’s but that she has rebuilt for him from scratch with loving attention to detail, and with seemingly no outside help. Her husband is a writer with writer’s block, and it seems to have put a strain on their relationship. She knows something is wrong, but is not sure what.
Then the guests come (Harris and Pfeiffer). They are neither known nor invited, but the husband asks them to stay, and she is horrified both at his lack of consideration and his willingness to harbour strangers. We come to see that he is almost entirely motivated by ego, and loves the attention of the outsiders, whilst they take little care of the house, which is so important to her. As the guests brashness and rudeness escalates, he invites them further into their lives, as opposed to creating boundaries or protecting her, and perhaps this is at the heart of the film, because this situation only escalates. It’s her house and home that she has created, her paradise with him that is so completely invaded, and which he shows no willingness to defend if it will mean curbing his growing popularity and attention to himself.
Does this sound a bit vague? Like I’m describing themes instead of plot points or characters? There’s a reason for that. No character has an actual name in this film, and everything happens in a strange dreamlike way, one event after another, following on and on and going to the extreme. The whole film is a metaphor, but for what? It’s an ambiguous film which takes in ideas about our inability to have privacy in the modern world, the draw of fame and social media, the destructive nature of religious fanaticism, the current political climate and uncertainly, violence, and also traditional male and female roles in marriage. The second half of this film is quite chaotic. There are also scenes that foreshadow like a horror film, but that don’t really presage a traditional one (that is, the early part of the film seems to suggest that she is hallucinating or may be a ghost in her own house, but this is not exactly followed up in traditional horror fashion).
With it’s focus on religious iconography and symbolism, I feel like perhaps this film is a bit like a creation myth. The creator, that is Bardem’s writer, creates a world outside while she, the divine mother, creates a paradise and a home. But man and woman come to their little Eden and the woman has a destructive impulse, like Eve, while the man acts like a disciple to the creator. Soon they’re deluged by devotees and the purity of the home and relationship is ruined. There is war and destruction, fanaticism, but the creator will not turn anyone away, but rather, he lets the mother or female principle be destroyed and reviled, as long as he is adored and comes first. That narrative is definitely there, if you want to see it.
But on the other hand, the film could also be about destructive relationships, or abusive ones. Whilst her whole life revolves around the house and it appears that she can’t leave, he must be the focus of attention at all times, and his temper can be quite scary. He takes no care of her, and she cries out to be heard and create healthy boundaries that he consistently violates and allows others to, to the extreme of allowing war, famine and authoritarian regimes into their very home. That is certainly there too.
As you can see, it’s a very hard film to define, and perhaps part of the enjoyment of the film is trying out different interpretations to see how they fit and what it all means. And perhaps it’s more fun not really knowing or having one truth.
I think the secondary enjoyment of the film is Lawrence herself. She’s a brilliant actress, and here she seems beautiful and pure, but also quite complex. She struggles to be heard against the domineering husband, and yet she’s not a doormat, she just doesn’t have any leverage to make change. She says no, and often screams it, but he is inexorable in his wants and his reasonableness. I found her really fascinating to watch in this film, and in fact the camera rarely allows you to look at much else, dogging her and giving her closer frames than any other character. In the final throes of the film, her pain and anguish are practically one long scream, which is quite a feat of performance.
This film will inevitably divide audiences. It’s a strange film to define and one with ambiguous meaning, even though it’s well crafted. If you like your films to be clear cut and to have a defined message, this film is not for you. But it does push the boundaries of film as a creator of meaning and seems like some kind of primal scream into the void of modern life and it’s existential angst. That’s no small feat really.
mother! is out on DVD & Blu-Ray now!