Bethany Smith muses on director Darren Aronofsky’s latest disturbing and metaphorical work, asking if this is more genius or now just a step too far.
The latest film from the director of Requiem for a Dream (2000), The Wrestler (2008), and, most famously, Black Swan (2010), is, quite simply, a nightmare.
It’s difficult to form a coherent opinion of mother!, since it is both mesmerising and almost impossible to sit through, equally stunning and horrible, and both the best and worst film that Aronofsky has ever made. This is a director that delights in making his audience squirm: from his feverish, paranoid first feature, Pi (1998), to his infamously disturbing addict-nightmare Requiem and the delightfully frantic ballerina tragedy Black Swan, Aronofsky seeks to disturb and divide audiences.
At the centre of mother! is an unnamed protagonist (Jennifer Lawrence) and the house, once destroyed by fire, that she has put her heart into restoring for her husband (Javier Bardem), a once reputable but now struggling poet. He takes this gift of love from her and quite literally offers it out to the world. He makes it public to his fans, and lets it be torn apart by them in a surreal, terrifying sequence of events for the sake of his ego and poetic reputation. It is a carefully considered mediation on humanity, and we’re not looking good.
Mathew Libatique’s cinematography particularly recalls the trance-like quality of Requiem, which he also worked on. The signature hand-held camerawork that follows her like a creature, that reveals things only as they are revealed to the protagonist, and the distinctive use of super tight face-on close-ups, creates a claustrophobia and inescapability that pins the audience member to their seat.
Insatiable mobs of people cram into the house and grasp and shout down the lens; they turn violent and become bewitched by mass hysteria. At moments the framing recalls newspaper photographs of riots or conflict in ruined cities, and at other times, Renaissance paintings. With his attention to people, en-mass, obsessed and divided by one man, Aronofsky toys with ideas of false idolatry and religion. It’s a domestic drama-turned-apocalyptic nightmare of biblical proportions.
mother!… is both mesmerising and almost impossible to sit through, equally stunning and horrible
On a more intimate level, the film is about womanhood; Lawrence’s character offers up her body, her youth and her love. She is a conduit for his artistic inspiration, and gets nothing in return. It’s hard not to ruminate on the autobiographical parallels, here, between the poet and his young wife and Aronofsky and Lawrence (47 and 29 respectively) who began a relationship during the shoot. Lawrence has been open about the emotional challenge of the performance and the lengths the director would push her; apparently Lawrence dislocated a rib and tore her diaphragm from exertion in one scene, and Aronofsky flipped the camera-angle onto her face and ran the scene again. Lawrence is, obviously, a consenting, intelligent actress, aware of the reputation of this controversial director, and who will as equally profit through the success of the project as him, so it’s hard to have much sympathy.
The click-bait scandal that was whipped up by most of the press in light of this information is predictable and, frankly, a bit boring. Where the dialogue about male directors taking precedence over female stories in Hollywood is so important and relevant, the automatic return (without any green light from the actress herself) to the narrative of the submissive lead actress as a victim to the grooming, controlling, but supposedly genius male auteur dismisses the recognition of the poise and talent of great actresses like Jennifer Lawrence. The exquisite, boundless performance wasn’t something that Aronofsky forced out of Lawrence, it was something that, with his collaboration, she
brought out of herself. Lawrence’s performance is her best to date. Her rising panic is contagious, her submissive willingness is sympathetic and convincing, and her utter helplessness is never confused for weakness.
It’s hard to escape this film, even after it’s over it follows you like a nightmare. Nothing about the viewing experience is enjoyable; a moment of relief is tailed by a return to hysteria and horror. It’s gory, busy, painful, and demanding. The director himself admitted, in one interview, ‘well, [I] always go a little too far’ – and we can only dread what he’ll put us through next.
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