Sometimes it isn’t what a film’s about or its style that’s surprising, but who’s in it and where it came from. Were Mother! an obscure genre piece from Europe or South Korea, its weird, wild excesses would probably be welcomed without the bat of an eyelid. But this is a relatively mainstream piece distributed by a major American studio (Paramount) and starring some of the biggest stars currently working in Hollywood: Jennifer Lawrence and Javier Bardem as two partners trapped in an increasingly hellish relationship. All of this might explain why the movie’s been greeted with a mixture of critical adulation and horrified disbelief since its festival debut.
Then again, it’s arguable that director Darren Aronofsky’s been making off-beat horror movies off and on since his career started with the whine of a drill in 1998. His debut, Pi, was the most oppressive film ever made about maths. Requiem For A Dream‘s addiction drama had more than its share of nightmare moments. Ballet saga Black Swan came laced with the exploitation edge of 70s Italian cinema. With Mother!, Aronofsky follows his weird Bible fantasy, Noah, with his purest expression of horror yet. This is a curious blend of Roman Polanski, Franz Kafka and the kind of dreams brought about by a vicious bout of food poisoning.
Mother! isn’t the kind of film that really needs a synopsis, but for what it’s worth, here’s one: in a large, Victorian Gothic house somewhere buried deep in the middle of a forest, a young woman (Lawrence) and her lover – or husband (Bardem) – live in peaceful isolation. The building was once a burned-out husk, with Bardem’s last partner dying in the fire; then along came his new significant other, who’s nearly finished restoring the place to its former glory. While she does odd things like plaster the walls or moves bits of furniture about, he gets on with his day job – nominally writing poetry, though he hasn’t been able to put a word down on paper in months.
(If you’re wondering about the absence of names in all this, it’s because there aren’t any: not unlike Lars Von Trier’s Antichrist, they’re simply credited as Mother and Him.)
The couple’s equilibrium is soon disturbed by some visitors: first a doctor (Ed Harris) who smokes enthusiastically, and his sour wife (Michelle Pfeiffer) who becomes more spitefully intrusive as she reaches the bottom of her booze-laced lemonade. Old wounds are opened up between the two homeowners, and gradually, their lives take on a hallucinatory turn as their visitors’ aggressive sons (real-life siblings Domhnall and Brian Gleeson) come crashing through the front door.
From there, what begins as an off-kilter melodrama gradually dives deep into surrealist horror territory, as Aronofsky builds up the pace and loads each cut with obscure symbolism. The long takes and handheld cinematography, with plenty of over-the-shoulder shots of Lawrence moving from room to room or close-ups of her increasingly paranoid face, recall the Uruguayan horror, Silent House (2010) and its 2011 remake. It’s interesting how much mileage directors get out of Jennifer Lawrence close-ups; Debra Ross told a bleak drama with intimate angles on Lawrence’s pained expressions in Winter’s Bone; Gary Ross told the greater part of the first Hunger Games movie in much the same way. In Mother!, Lawrence appears to fill the same role as Mia Farrow in Rosemary’s Baby, with the subjective style of Aronofsky’s camera prompting us to question whether some or all of what we’re experiencing is occurring in the lead’s mind.
The precise meaning of Aronofsky’s symbolism – if there is one single meaning – will likely spark months, if not years of pub debate. Is this all meant to be a semi-autobiographical comment on what fame does to relationships, since Aronofsky and Lawrence are an item in real life? Is it intended as a biblical allegory set within the confines of one house? Could the way Lawrence’s increasingly rude guests treat her home be an allegory for our destruction of the planet? Or is it maybe a comment on the way the film industry treats women? It’s quite possible that all these readings are correct.
What’s clear is how much Aronofsky – who writes as well as directs – enjoys toying with the staples of the horror genre, particularly gothic horror: there are locked rooms, a swooning heroine, hidden passages, and a very ominous basement. For this writer, however, it’s somewhat disappointing how heavily Aronofsky leans on the hackneyed elements of genre cinema: jump-scares, peek-a-boo moments where figures appear in the negative spaces behind lead characters.
When Mother! had its premiere in Venice earlier in September, the mood in the theatre appeared to be split between those who were shocked by Aronofsky’s audacity and verve and those who just wanted to stand and shout their frustration at the darkening screen. Away from the theatrics of European festivals, though, there’s possibly a third response to the movie: that, for all its attempts to cajole and horrify, it all feels a bit weak – and dare we say it, even somewhat derivative – compared to some of the more taboo-busting, transgressive entries in cinema history that Mother! often recalls.
All the same, Aronofsky commits himself to Mother! with a certain gonzo, go-for-broke fervour that’s impossible to ignore. His movie harkens back to the 70s era, when Hollywood studios would commit A-picture budgets to horror pieces like The Exorcist, The Shining and the aforementioned Rosemary’s Baby. While Mother! can’t match the brilliance of those movies, it remains a thought-provoking and eccentric descent into the unknown.
Mother! is out in UK cinemas on the 15th September.