A boy's best friend
(Warning: overall narrative and plot twists discussed in explicit detail)
Call it Rosemary's Baby with a strong dose of The Shining or: what happens when a pregnant woman's gnawing sense of paranoia confronts a writer's block.
Darren Aronofsky's latest feature mother!--title is a minefield of smallcase capitalization and punctuation--feels at first like a creepy-funny mix of the two. mother (Jennifer Lawrence) is married to Him (Javier Bardem); both live in a three-story house in the middle of lovely nowhere (no driveway no mailbox, the structure apparently airlifted to location and dropped in place (the production is reported to have used a constructed set for the first-floor daytime sequences, soundstages for the later night scenes involving upper and lower stories)).
The film is stylized to its earlobes. For the first hour we see mother's pale desaturated face--well not so much her face as the back of her head, camera following as she climbs staircases walks through hallways enters one room after another, often in search of Him (who has a tendency to vanish if you don't keep him in sight). We're distracted by actor Jennifer Lawrence's makeup--or at least (to these inexpert eyes) apparent lack of makeup, perhaps playing up her stay-at-home dowdiness as housewife, domestic engineer, amateur interior decorator (doesn't work; she's still stunning). We also come aware of the fact--not immediately apparent so the realization comes gradually--that no one has proper names, from Lawrence and Bardem to the visiting man (Ed Harris) his woman (Michelle Pfeiffer) the rest of the cast.
The film plays like a domestic comedy, loving diligent wife forced to deal with unexpected (and unwanted) houseguests. The storytelling is Polanski with less finesse, the over-the-shoulder camera more urgent than smooth, the closeups gigantic, the acting in-your-face and overtly hostile (where Minnie and Roman were initially charming--said charm to later curdle and sour--Harris' man is immediately grating ("Please don't smoke!" mother snaps as he thoughtlessly lights up a stick) and Pfeiffer's woman takes effrontery to the next level ("Don't you want children?" she asks in an interrogator's don't-bullshit-me tone)). Bardem as Him struggles with a basically unplayable character, by turns incredulously passive (watches as his child is carried away by teeming mob) and implausibly aggressive (dives through same mob to defend his wife).
The film's trajectory quickly assumes a--but what else?--downward spiral; by final frame the narrative has come full circle. mother! it turns out isn't really about her as it is about Him; you can even pinpoint the moment when the film shows its hand: "It's beautiful!" mother declares of Him's story, written immediately after learning that she's pregnant; when the Herald (Kristen Wiig) reveals she's already read Him's fresh-minted work mother blinks, partly (I suspect) out of some obscure sense of betrayal ("I thought he came to me with his story first!"), partly out of realization that the record player of her reality has somehow skipped a groove.
The rest of the picture can roughly be described as 'a descent into hell' though how many Aronofsky pictures can you say isn't that in their last thirty or so minutes? mother ultimately learns her status in Him's scheme of things: not so much equal partner as grist for his artistic mill, yet another character however crucial in his cunningly wrought narrative.
It's a remarkably self-centered point of view and in a perverse way admirable--difficult to find a filmmaker willing to be as honest about his relationship to his work his audience the very girl he's dating (Newsflash!). Also have to admire the way Aronofsky folds said point of view into the purportedly mothercentric narrative, complete with mother's reaction to his artist's confession ("It's beautiful!"--doubtless there'll be talk of an Oscar statuette for Lawrence's two-hour Calvary of suffering but if she at all deserves recognition for her performance it will be for this single line reading, two words that suggest surprise resentment anger resignation acceptance awe love, a knotted tapestry of emotions).
Admire the film even at some level like it and still am not a fan. Always had an issue with Aronofsky--from Pi to Requiem for a Dream to Black Swan he's displayed more talent than control more flop sweat than anything else. His films turn on tormented human beings who build terrific inner physical and psychological pressure till they pop and when they do pop the noise and light is more intense than evocative. At a certain point transcendence is achieved but--Boy! Does He Work Hard At It!
Same problem with mother! The basic theme is trite (God the Father as Artistic Sonfabitch fabricates Rube Goldberg device, creating a world and destroying it simultaneously in a cloud of sparks and colored smoke) complete with 'shock' finale (basically Cormac McCarthy without the grim realist background that refuses to let you off the hook, which when you think about it really takes inspiration from The Brothers Grimm). Aronofsky succeeds through determination and unfettered talent--but the willpower required to overlook not inconsiderable flaws! The stomach necessary to accept the in-your-face style the volcano warts! You almost need as much energy to like this film as as as Aronofsky does making the film in the first place. That position of symmetry and equilibrium achieved, you stop to rest. Maybe. And wonder if it was worth all the effort.
First published in Businessworld 9.22.17