mother! ½

Jennifer Lawrence plays an unnamed woman who lives with her partner, Javier Bardem, an unnamed writer of acclaimed poems. They have a large but rundown house in the middle of nowhere that she is in the process of renovating. When an unnamed stranger (Ed Harris) shows up at their door, their lives are turned upside down... in a slow, Kafkaesque sort of way.

Ever read The Unconsoled by Kazuo Ishiguro? This takes a similar approach to the first half of that book in how Lawrence's character responds to the escalating imposition on her life. As a result of everyday social restraints, she's rendered unable to do anything except go along with the nonsense while her stability is picked to pieces by a stream of strangers entering her house and acting with increasing aggression. For the first hour or so, it's irritating petty annoyances (people who won't leave, people sitting on the sink, breaking things, etc). The second half, well, let's just say it gets worse. Throughout all of this, she takes draughts of some kind of almost laudanum-esque anti-anxiety concotion like a Victorian gothic heroine, until stuff reaches a histrionic and ghoulish conclusion.

Sigh.

The problems I had with mother! are many. So many, I don't think I can even scratch the surface here. First of all, I'm not entirely sure what Aronofsky is trying to say but I can't find a way of doing the mental gymnastics required to think it's anything good. I've read people claim it's "about everything and nothing" but sure, I mean, isn't any art? You could look at a blank canvas and apply your own meaning ("EVERYTHING AND NOTHING, MAN") the same way you could a pile of actual dogshit ("EVERYTHING AND NOTHING!"). I think mother! gives you more than just blankness though. I think by saying it doesn't and that it's entirely an abstract piece is, in a way, glossing over some of its potentially problematic elements.

I mean, it's kind of a movie about a great, creative middle-aged man who has a beautiful, doting, much younger woman there to adore him, but she's just not enough when compared with the validation he gets for his art, so he literally destroys her. And she's kind of okay with it because, well, he's Darren Aronofsky and therefore a genius. Maybe. There's more, obviously. I think it wrestles a lot with the conflict between the creative process and, well, any form of existence outside of it and I felt like this is something that should resonate with me but it just didn't. I was left cold and unmoved by every single scene in this movie. It felt whiny, contrived, in love with itself. Aronofsky's alluded in interview to all manner of biblical allegory as well and I can't even begin to unpack that. It's in there, sure. But it almost makes it worse - like he's comparing himself to God...

I admit it's unfair of me to force a meaning or an agenda on to mother! because, while it does give you raw materials to create one, I'm sure all viewers will have their own. Personally, I felt there was even an air of misogyny running through it but, what do I know? I do sometimes feel like it's not my place to criticise a film's questionable gender politics (I'd rather hear it coming from a woman) and yet I think Aronofsky once again has written a film about a female cipher rather than an actual character.

I mean, it's possible it was intentional to not give Lawrence's character any actual traits beyond anxiety but it also smacks of the same weird, fetishistic approach to female dysfunction that Aronofsky displayed with Black Swan. Lawrence looks so impossibly beautiful throughout this whole film and the camera is lecherous from the first scene (in which she wears a translucent nightie) and I think this is intentional. Just like in Black Swan, Aronofsky seems to take great pleasure in watching a beautiful woman reduced to nothing at the hands of a very artistically talented man. The nudity and sexually abusive language in the film's climax back that up uncomfortably.

Still, with Black Swan, at least it had a certain energy and some great music and iconic make-up design to counter myriad screenplay issues. With mother!, even ignoring its cryptic meaning, I found the whole film overwhelmingly dull. With so few principle cast members and one location, it runs the risk of being stagey but instead overcompensates with shaky close-ups, unusual tracking shots and many techniques to say "LOOK THIS IS A FILM" and it's always distracting.

Still, my least favourite thing about the movie was probably the way the story unfolds using an unconventional passing of time. Things just happen because they're ready to happen (e.g. a character can die and their funeral can be moments later; a character can become pregnant and have the child a day later). As a result of this, the focus is always on the ALLEGORY (which, as I say, I found tiresome) and there's never any real stakes, any actual drama, any kind of coherent storyline. Everyone's on rails. It's a series of stressful events (that - rather than being INTENSE - just feel like Aronofsky poking you and going "is this annoying yet? how about now?" over and over again) happening to a non-character over a very long runtime, all to hammer home a message that (I felt anyway) is a ferociously self-indulgent one. And yes, yes, I know, we could talk all day about whether all art is self-indulgent and anyway, SHOULDN'T it be? But that's not what I mean here.

There are moments when it feels like an outright parody of an arthouse film (e.g. an unknown man enters. "What are you doing here?" asks J-Law. "What are any of us doing here?" he replies, deadpan), but ultimately I never got the impression there was any intentional humour or self-awareness to mother! It felt like the work of a man who feels he has a lot to say in the way of Serious Business but, sadly, it's just all about himself and how great he is.

Of course, this will polarise viewers. I can't imagine there will be many who sit on the fence and say "well, yeah, it was okay I guess?" and once upon a time I would've thought that was a good thing. Why make art if you're not going to upset a few people? I think, deep down, I do still believe that. But I'd like to see it applied to films that are actually subversive, that do something to flip the cinematic or social status quo. I didn't feel like mother! (a tedious phallic monument to the director's own importance) did that. Still, your mileage may vary.

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