Shrouded in secrecy til the very last moment, the only thing we knew about Lido-favourite Darren Aronofsky’s mother! was its anaemic synopsis, hinting at a psychological thriller about a couple whose relationship is put to the test, as well as some gorgeously enigmatic posters. This eye-catching marketing-done-right left many obsessing over cryptic clues that could be hidden within each painted picture, as well as ramping up excitement levels. Was it a home invasion thriller with supernatural leanings? A thinking man’s haunted house horror? Perhaps a pre-emptive and somewhat overripe announcement that the Aronofsky-Lawrence couple are expecting?
Whatever it was, there was something refreshing about going into mother! blind, an increasing rarity nowadays. If only the result could have lived up to the mystique bleeding from the posters…
We meet “mother” (Jennifer Lawrence) and “him” (Javier Bardem) in their isolated rustic mansion. He is a celebrated poet in the midst of a creative drought, while she renovates the once-burned down house. Trouble comes to paradise with the arrival of “man” (Ed Harris), who claims to have been told that their abode was a bed-and- breakfast. “Him” invites “man” in and immediately strikes a rapport, allowing him to stay for as long as he wants. His wife, “woman” (Michelle Pfeiffer) arrives the next day and the rather brash couple quickly make themselves at home, breaking several personal boundaries and even showing the mistress of the house outright disdain when they’re not ignoring her. He sees the intrusion as an opportunity to welcome creativity into their house; she appreciates the implication that they could put an end to his writer’s block, but never feels comfortable with the parasitic presence of two perfect strangers…
There’s plenty to admire about Aronfsky’s full-on foray into horror territory, including Jóhann Jóhannsson’s assaultive sound design, as well as the ominous cinematography. Shot primarily from “mother”’s point of view, Matthew Libatique’s hand-held camerawork ramps up the unease the character feels, an atmosphere only heightened by the adroit handling of the single-location. From the Edgar Allen Poe staircase to the basement that would make Guillermo Del Toro’s shorts tighten, Aronofsky utilises the house as a psychological barometer, a way to explore the character’s anxieties, magnifying the audience’s understanding of an increasingly fractured soul who spends time building herself up only to have others tear her down.
Full credit is also due to the writer-director for the way he eschews more straightforward tropes linked to motherhood. The horror genre has seen many a distressed mama-to-be, a malevolent matriarch or an overly protective mommy dearest; whether it’s in Carrie or Rosemary’s Baby (with which mother! shares some DNA), or in recent efforts like The Babadook or Ich Seh Ich Seh, motherhood is a one of horror’s most established staples, and therefore to successfully address it means to bring something new to the table. Aronofsky succeeds in this, preferring to explore how one can be cast as a mother figure even before being one. “Mother” acts like a dutiful and frequently effacing mother-figure to her husband, catering to his needs above her own, and is seen reprimanding some other guests like a matriarch would a misbehaving child. Once the child is conceived and born… Well, that’s another story which won’t be spoilt here.
Frustratingly, this rewarding approach to a common trope, as well as the intoxicating mystery cocooned within a home invasion thriller, isn’t graced with suffocating scares or a payoff worthy of the secrecy maintained until the first press screening, a secrecy which now feels like a calculated bluff. The second act sees certain subplots and major characters dropped altogether, and as the dread-laden tale takes a dizzying feverish free-fall into hell, the overwrought allegorical content regrettably goes sky high. Seemingly unable to settle on one parable, Aronofsky gives them all a protracted go: mother! alternatively becomes a meditation about the toxicity of ego-driven masculinity, the necessity of chaos that decries from artistic creation, how fame invites invasiveness, and how mankind’s insatiable nature destroys the gifts nature has given us, all capped off with a Biblical reading that seems to imply both disparate acts are in fact reworkings of the Old and New Testament. None of these layers are fleshed out, and while a lack of spoon-feeding is always to be applauded, the ambitious pummelling of potential meaning exudes an exhausting whiff off aux-profundity. This dilutes the impact of the otherwise strong performances and the visually abrasive, stunningly shot bacchanal scenes. It’s a case of too much allegory kills the allegory, and as audacious, assaulting and at times shocking as mother! can be, it ends up as somewhat underwhelming once the initial blow to the senses rapidly fades.
Many will disagree, as the general consensus among the critical body at the Mostra is overwhelmingly positive, but for this reviewer’s accreditation, mother! is step down from the much tighter delirium of Aronofsky’s Pi or Black Swan. It feels like product of a furiously peacocking director who tried too hard to be abrasive and hasn’t convincingly delivered the transgressive coup he sought to achieve.
Mother! | Directed by Darren Aronofsky (UK 2017), with Jennifer Lawrence, Javier Bardem, Ed Harris, Michelle Pfeiffer. Starts September 14.
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