By far, the weirdest thing about this film written and directed by Darren Aronofsky is the notion that someone actually believed it could be turned into a mainstream hit a la Aronofsky’s Black Swan. What put me off watching it in the cinema however wasn’t the polarized reaction and stories of the audience members demanding refunds, but the mention of the dreaded hand-held camera in one of the reviews. I made the right call to avoid nausea at the cinema, but the big screen and darkened isolation from the outside world would undoubtedly have been a better place to fully appreciate the movie’s unique claustrophobic insanity. As opposed to my living room with my Russian neighbours talking in the background.
There’s no point talking about mother! without mentioning what it’s really about, so spoilers ahead.
On a literal level, the film is about a doomed relationship between the unnamed Mother of the title (Jennifer Lawrence) and her much older husband simply known as Him, an acclaimed poet nursing a writer’s block (Javier Bardem). They live in a big octagonal house somewhere in the rural area, which Mother has been lovingly restoring all by herself since the fire. Their peace is interrupted one day by a man (Ed Harris) who is invited by Him to stay the night. Mother is not too pleased about this outside intrusion, but she goes along with her husband’s wishes. When the man’s brassy and nosy wife (Michelle Pfeiffer, always a pleasure to see onscreen) arrives the next day, Mother’s meek displeasure increases, but little does she know that her problems and her sense of disempowered anxiety have just began. Meanwhile, her narcissistic husband is rather happy about this influx of admirers, who make him feel re-invigorated.
But forget this attempt at a grounded story, because mother! is also a biblical allegory and an insane attempt to cover the Book of Genesis, the birth of Christianity, and the world’s creation and destruction within the confines of a single house, in a space of two hours. Within this allegory, Lawrence is the loving and giving Mother Earth and Bardem is God; Harris is Adam and Pfeiffer is Eve, and sure enough their two sons’ visit ends in tragedy. There’s the banishment of Adam and Eve from Paradise, the Flood, the birth and death of Jesus, and the violence and destruction wreaked by the human race onto the world.
I’m not sure if the film does a good job integrating the literal and the allegorical, especially as it pretty much ditches the pretense at telling a grounded story and descends into a bare allegory during the last punishing half an hour or so, with heavily pregnant Mother flung among chaos, bloodshed and extreme violence. It’s hard to be truly moved or invested in the characters when you’re aware, at all times, that they’re representations rather than real people with real lives (in fact the only time the film got to me emotionally was at the very end when Mother and Him finally addressed each other as what they truly were).
It’s easy to see why many people absolutely loathed mother!, but I rather admired its extravagant madness and ambition and it’s definitely a singular experience. It has a beautiful look to it with the muted palette of cool blues and warm browns and the house is a marvellous piece of set design. Most of the cinematography consists of oppressive close-ups, with the camera never far away from Lawrence’s face or the back of her head, and no musical score to relieve the claustrophobia. While her character is timid and reactive for most of the film, Lawrence is asked to go to some extreme, dark places in the finale and shows herself to be a brave actress. Bardem meanwhile is perfect as the self-centred, authoritarian creator.