With its disturbing finale and surreal plot, the psychological horror film Mother! has polarised cinema-goers and critics, receiving both boos and a standing ovation during its premiere at the Venice Film Festival. Is it an ‘ambitious, dense, delirious, playful and serious work of capital A art’, or ‘the most vile and contemptible motion picture ever released by one of the major Hollywood studios’?
If you like horror films such as Rosemary’s Baby, fiendish plot twists and Jennifer Lawrence, then you will find much to admire here. The hand-held camera is literally in her face: it follows her around her dream house until we are acquainted with every mole on her skin, and feel dizzy with claustrophobia. And if you enjoy Feydeau farces or surrealist films such as The Discreet Charm of the Bourgeoisie, you will enjoy the blackly-funny escalation of guests, violence and domestic chaos. But make sure to avoid it like the plague if you are pregnant.
Writer-Director Darren Aronofsky’s Mother! starts like a dark fantasy: a woman’s bloody face, wreathed in flames; a man putting a large crystal into a holder on a plinth, where it begin to glow with gold veins; a burnt-out house is transformed back into its former glory; in one of its bedrooms a woman (Lawrence) wakes up and calls for her husband – ‘baby?’
The characters in Mother! go un-named, perhaps to mark them out as archetypes in a fable. The film’s cast-list calls Jennifer Lawrence’s character ‘Mother’ and her husband (Javier Bardem) ‘Him’. She is lovingly restoring their old rural colonial mansion, while he, an apparently famous poet, attempts to write his next masterpiece.
When a stranger (Ed Harris) knocks at their door he is welcomed in by the poet, glad to be distracted from his writer’s block. Mother, though, is bothered and bewildered by this intrusion. She takes umbrage over the stranger’s attempts to smoke in the house and is annoyed by her husband when he invites the man to stay.
Next day the man’s waspish wife (Michelle Pfeiffer) breezes into the house, upsetting Mother with her rudeness. Upon learning that they do not yet have any children, she advises ‘why not finish breakfast and get to it’. They go down into the creepy cellar, with its industrial-sized washing machine, where Pfeiffer derides Mother’s choice of underwear (big white pants), leaving her holding a pair of her own lime green lacey ones.
More strangers appear and Mother’s dream of domestic bliss turns into a nightmare, just as she becomes pregnant. Affronted and squeamish, Lawrence’s face does a good job of registering our own disturbance and disgust, as bizarre and violent events begin to accumulate, leading to a harrowing, though technically stupendous finale, which brings us cleverly back to the beginning.
By the end, we feel as though we have been put through the wringer, and gone a few rounds inside that industrial-sized washing machine.
Mother! can be seen as a satire on domesticity, or the impossibility of finding a peaceful room of one’s own amidst the hectic intrusions of modern life. The house becomes an extension of Mother’s psychological and physical disturbance, with its throbbing, womb-like walls, bleeding floorboards and erupting toilet. There is no score, so everyday sounds are accentuated: a copper kettle sings, a fly buzzes, and, as Mother feels the stress we hear a high-pitched ringing, like a migraine taking hold.
Aronofsky’s film could also be viewed as a fantastical depiction of the processes of artistic birth and creation for both director and poet – the gory mess of life transformed and crystallized into Art. Something out of nothing.