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Arts & Culture

Aronofsky’s “Mother!” mixes allegory with chaos

‘Mother!’ forgoes character development for cinematic experimentation

staff writer
Monday, September 18, 2017

What is “Mother!”? An environmental allegory? A perverse retelling of the creation myth? A cautionary tale about dating a film director? A home improvement thriller?

“Mother!,” the new film from director Darren Aronofsky, is all of these things. Maybe. There has to be a point, one figures, where multivalence crosses over into incoherence. And the  further along this film goes on its tense acid trip of a narrative, the more it seems to cross that line.

The film begins with the character credited only as “Him,” played by Javier Bardem, placing a jewel in an austere steel nest, which refreshes his decrepit and burned house. Ashes and debris disappear, colors reemerge and the house becomes an idyllic island in a sea of tall grasses. A paradise, if you will. But the most important restoration happens in the bedroom, where the form of a sleeping woman materializes, rising like a soufflé beneath the bedsheets.

The woman is “Mother,” played by Jennifer Lawrence, and she has a good deal of baking, cooking, cleaning, doting and fretting ahead of her. Married to a poet, she is a devoted wife, content to work on the house, still unfinished, while her husband cloisters himself away in his office.

But from the first moment we see the two of them together, an unease sets in. Bardem enters with a jump scare, and Aronofsky shoots Lawrence in a tight close-up, crowding the audience with her pleading, anxious face. She doesn’t just love her husband; she reveres him. Yet the thrill of having a beautiful young woman around to praise and support him has begun to wear off. When she tells him that she loves his work, he brushes her off with a weary “I know you do.”

Soon enough, the couple has visitors. First comes “Man,” played by Ed Harris, a doctor who claims to have mistaken the house for a bed and breakfast. When Him invites Man to stay the night, Mother reacts with confusion and distress — why is her husband inviting this strange man into their private paradise? The next day, when Man’s wife — “Woman,” played by Michelle Pfeiffer — arrives, Mother becomes even more distraught. Who are these people, and why are they here?

Lawrence, Bardem, Harris and Pfeiffer form the heavyweight core of actors here, and the film is at its best when focused on them. The tensions within and between the couples make for discomfiting marital drama. When Harris and Pfeiffer lustily lock lips in front of Bardem and Lawrence, Bardem watches with a strange, quiet excitement.

The very best scenes, though, are those that spotlight Lawrence and Pfeiffer. Woman peppers Mother with questions about her home and sex life, musing that Mother and her husband ought to have children, since then they’d be “creating something together.” Pfeiffer, slightly drunk off spiked lemonade, dispenses withering glances and condescending put-downs with shattering, hilarious precision. For a few minutes, she transforms “Mother!” into something like a Nancy Meyers production shot with the nervy psychosis of Roman Polanski. Pfeiffer’s performance is the one out-and-out triumph of the film.

As “Mother!” progresses, it becomes larger and weirder in scope. More visitors arrive, blood is spilled, an apocalypse is nigh and a woman gives birth. Yet the chaos feels too broad to ever become as disquieting as Aronofsky wants it to be, and the allegories become at once confused and obvious — in a few choice moments, he conveys themes with all the subtlety of a crowning baby.

Throughout all of this, Lawrence carries out the unenviable task of repeatedly screaming things like, “No, it’s not yours!,” “What are you doing?” and “You need to leave!” She’s not bad, but she doesn’t quite transcend the limits of the role, either.

What exactly those limits are, and why they are there, is difficult to pin down, and only complicated by the fact that Lawrence and Aronofsky are currently in a relationship. One of the film’s themes is the idea of the muse as victim, subject to the moods and tempers of the artist. It’s hard not to wonder: is Aronofsky trying to tell Lawrence something here?

Whatever their relationship may bring to bear on the film, the fact remains that the trope of the inscrutable male artist is growing old. “Mother!” seemed as though it might take it on from a new angle, focused as it is on the woman, narratively and visually. Aronofsky claims that 66 minutes of the film are a close-up of Lawrence’s face, which seems right. When the close-ups aren’t on screen, the camera rotates around Lawrence, showing everything in relation to her. For all but a few frames, Lawrence is the center of gravity.

Even so, Mother never comes into her own. She is God, Mary, womanhood, nature and muse. Subject to and abused by the film’s thematic agenda, she is everything but a real character. Stories of victimhood are only as interesting as their victims, and Aronofsky has neglected his. This isn’t to say, however, that Aronofsky has a complete failure on his hands. “Mother!” is polarizing and personal, and the fact that it received a wide release is as puzzling as it is welcome — lunatic cinematic craft is in short supply at the multiplex these days. It deserves to be rewarded.


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