By Joss Farquhar (Durham, UK)
Darren Aronofsky (Requiem for a Dream, The Fountain) is no stranger to barraging his audience with bizarre, ethereal filmmaking, with past ventures such as Requiem for a Dream presenting jolting, fast cutting scenes of drug abuse, addiction and sexual violence to both draw us in, and leave us wanting more. However, with Mother! Aranofsky has somehow found a way to top even his most alienating, yet simultaneously engrossing cinematic works with one of the most divisive, bizarre, and ingenious studio-released movies since the turn of the millennium, leaving significant controversy in its wake.
Whilst past filmic ventures by Aranofsky may have interspersed his somewhat rogue and alienating sequences of frantic cuts, frame shifts and sounds with moments of relief and convention, Mother! grasps the viewer from its opening scene, and heads only on a one way direction of increasingly psychotic, disturbing, and engrossing scenery that culminates in a cinematic experience unlike any other. For at its core, Mother! is not a film to be enjoyed, unlike other studio released action and thriller films of the early autumn, but a psychological experience one undertakes and allows themselves to be attacked as Aranofsky uses shocking, yet brilliant filmmaking to present us with critique, and question about our home, self, relationships, and the all too real possibility that humanity continues to be its own worst enemy.
Explaining the premise of Mother! comes easily, yet actually describing what the film is about seems an insurmountable challenge. On a basic narratological level, Jennifer Lawrence’s character (credited as ‘mother’) lives an idyllic, peaceful existence away from society with her new (and significantly older) husband played by Javier Bardem (credited as ‘Him’) in his childhood home, once burned to the ground by a fire and rebuilt together. As her husband, a seemingly world-famous poet, experiences writers block over his next piece, mother engages in refurbishment around their newly renovated home, enjoying an existence devoid of neighbours and conflict, as both complement each other in working on their goals. Aranofsky’s beautifully constructed isolatory existence, established by the (extremely) rare outside shots of both the house, and the unsoiled nature around it, finds itself disturbed, when a stranger (credited as ‘man’ and played by Ed Harris), knocks on their door one evening seeking refuge, only for his wife (portrayed brilliantly by Michelle Pfeiffer) to arrive shortly after.
The intrusion of these two strangers marks the films descent into sheer madness, as scene after scene grows increasingly uncomfortable, with the volume of guests rising exponentially, until the entire house seems unable to accommodate the immense volume of intruders, who seem drawn to mother’s husband. The tension and insanity rises until the viewer finds themselves on the edge of their seat, mouth open, unsure of how to digest, or even perceive the insanity in front of them.
Yet, describing what Mother! is actually about after the introduction of these four characters is something much more difficult. Is it the bible? Is it environmental critique? Or is it a personal tale of the breakdown of interpersonal communication? Whilst Mother! has a clear beginning, middle and end, following conventional narratology, the events that unfold are both challenging to tangibly explain or even digest, becoming something that needs to be experienced rather than described. As what starts with a simple premise of home invasion, escalates into rioting, destruction, brutal violence and psychological discomfort whilst Aronofsky’s prowess becomes evident in the ways he films, follows, and displays his brilliantly talented cast, who all serve to only enhance this insane ride further.
Mother! is a film which seeks to immerse its audience in a relenting ride of discomfort and fear, and Aronofsky’s decision to shoot the majority of the film through only three types of shot serves his aim of eliciting such a response. If we are not following a character with a tracking shot, or seeing something through their eyes in a point of view angle, then we are assaulted with close ups that bring us right into the action and torture (both psychological and physical) of everyone involved. Whilst such stylistic choice is undoubtedly, going to alienate and frustrate some viewers due to its sheer refusal to allow us to explore the beautiful scenery in which the film unfolds, it serves Aronofsky’s purpose perfectly. We are never allowed to explore, or breathe, catch our breath and take a moments relief from what is on the screen, as we are meant to be gripped from beginning to end, and feel claustrophobic tension and discomfort from such shots to barrage us with the horror on the screen, whilst reinforcing the notion that such horror is relentless in reality as well.
For instance, whilst close ups of Lawrence’s face when dealing with her unexpected (and unwelcome) guests illuminate both the frustration and annoyance of having one’s space invaded, this serves a two-fold purpose in which we are invited to feel both this growing frustration, whilst being relentlessly placed into the heart of such tension, feeling uneasy, as if mayhem could follow in a mere second. Such tension remains until we find ourselves lost in the madness the screen brings us so close to, blurring the line between whether or not the attacks are on the character who’s eyes we are viewing them through, or us ourselves.
Such a stylistic choice for up close and personal filmmaking is undoubtedly one of the film’s most divisive points amongst critics, but those who allow themselves to be taken in by such shots on will find themselves both at Aronofsky’s mercy, and truly engrossed in his stylistic vision. As it is here one must wonder whether or not negative reviews which have expressed both frustration and discomfort at both the filmic technique, and the violence in front of them, are simply uncomfortable with cinema assaulting them in such a way. If this is the case, then it is clear Aronofsky has achieved his vision, and beyond.
However, such stylistics would be nowhere without a cast to carry them. A film that relies so heavily not only on what characters are doing, but what they are feeling (and sub-sequentially, not doing), needs convincing and engrossing performances to play to these relentlessly personal and invasive frames to truly sell their characters and invite us to engage, something they achieve in an exceptional manner. Whilst everyone involved gives a riveting performance, it is Michelle Pfeiffer who stands tall, with her presence on the screen stealing the spotlight. From the minute she enters the film, it feels as though she delivers her lines with a suave grace, and sublime demeanour that truly captivates us, in an unsettling manner that heightens the tension as to her ulterior motives. Such a performance deserves the utmost praise, as the cool, convincing demeanour with which she plays a sexually charged, relentless invader to Lawrence’s home, not only sells the character, but gives it a power and ability to unsettle that few others would have achieved.
Pfeiffer is not alone in her extraordinary ability to capture the screen within Mother! as Lawrence flawlessly portrays a woman in intense physical and psychological torture, at the end of her tether, especially towards the end as the insanity of Mother! seems to reach its dizzying peak. It may be the case that her performance here tops the critically lauded Silver Linings Playbook, as she enters the screen and portrays the sheer sense of bewilderment, fear, love, loss and betrayal that her character is required to with an intense gusto and prowess that she succeeds in not only eliciting empathy from us, but making us share the pain her character feels. For instance scenes such as one frighteningly tense conversion between her and Javier Bardem’s Him towards the end of the third act alone in a room is a perfect example of how strong an actress Lawrence truly can be, with the nail-biting dialogue and exceptional ability of each actor to bounce off each other, boosting the captivating performances on play. It is through Mother! that Lawrence has managed to prove herself as an actress with talent that deserves serious recognition, magically capturing the screen, and dragging us into its nightmare.
Both the performances and decision to take on these roles by their respective actors should also be applauded further when considering the inescapably offensive nature of Mother! as a piece of cinema. This is not a film that will ever receive universal praise, and even decades from now many will look back on it with scorn and disgust at just how far Aronofsky takes his allegorical tale in the extremes of violence. It is most likely for this reason, along with stylistic choices such as the unusual focus on close-up angles, that Mother! has come under fire from reviewers denouncing it as ‘offensive’ and ‘tasteless’ whilst others hail it as a masterpiece. It must be reiterated that the viewer is likely to be offended, and shown distasteful imagery, and those with religious background may find the film to be out-right blasphemy in some regards, but the sheer extremity of such imagery hits Aranofsky’s allegorical statements home even further, whilst also reaffirming the place of cinema which goes against the pre-established paradigm.
To divulge into the allegorical scenes, relationships, and aesthetics of Mother! would be spoiler territory, and all I will only briefly acknowledge the theological nature of the film which Aranofsky has gone on to discuss publically after its release. With both the bizarre and inventive filmmaking on display, alongside the transgressive shocking imagery, Aranofsky delights in presenting a disturbing version of scripture, with contemporary and undeniably important critique. Through the offensive and assaulting violence the audience is subjected to, one cannot help but leave the theatre questioning the parallels such aggression and violence have in reality at which Aranofsky hints. As the film draws to a close, it feels as though it has not finished. This is not in a negative sense, but rather, in the sense that the film seeks to implant a message about both theology, and the state of our habitat throughout is 2 hour running time, that goes beyond the credits to demonstrate Aranofsky’s concerns are far from over, and that our thoughts about it shouldn’t be either.
Whilst theological allegory may be the most discussed aspect of Mother! it is undeniable that other thematic issues arise that the viewer can both perceive, and understand subjectively. We can feel Lawrence’s frustration at the guests who ruin her house, stemming from our own fears of the impossibility of privacy and peace from external threat, or the sadness and anger that arises from our emotional distance between those we care for despite our best efforts, and the ruin our egotistical tendencies inevitably bring. It is this multi-layered thematic possibility which exists inside Mother! that makes it such a brilliant piece of cinema. One can both appreciate Aranofsky’s supposed intended focus, whilst breaking away from it to discover smaller, yet equally relevant concerns. Whilst the allegorical nature of the narrative sometimes gets bogged down in the desire to recreate certain theological aspects (creating occasional confusion as to whether or not Aranofsky is merely recreating, or commenting on Christian theology), the subjective experience each viewer has of Mother! allows this to barely affect overall enjoyment and revel in its sheer madness, long after leaving their seat.
Regardless of the controversy surrounding its extreme violence and blasphemous nature, Mother! is a film all who have seen it will struggle to forget. The captivating, and claustrophobic camera work draws the viewer in, only to subject them to a psychological nightmare of violence and distress. Whilst the film occasionally finds itself somewhat too concerned with creating an allegory of theological tales, the relentless, breath-taking and somewhat traumatising experience Mother! takes us on is unlike something ever seen. The bizarre, confusing and disturbing nature of Mother! has, and, will continue to get people talking about it. Something that good cinema should do. –Joss Farquhar