Tuesday 26 September 2017

A house divisive: "mother!"

I caught up with Darren Aronofsky's freakout mother! upon its second week on release, by which point its fate as the premier film maudit of late 2017 had been sealed: reports of audiences fleeing in their droves, trailing historically low feedback scores in their wake, had been countered by a statement from studio Paramount, defending the writer-director's right to push boundaries and challenge taboos, which was in turn countered the following weekend by cinema bookers, scurrying to slash the number of screenings to better accommodate the majesty of Kingsman: The Golden Circle - thus apparently concluding the latest flurry of activity in the eternal clash between popular entertainment and personal expression, between art and commerce. The advantage of watching mother! with a second-week crowd was, I think, that we were all more or less aware of what we may have been letting ourselves in for: sure enough, I detected at least one walkout amid the film's final descent into full-on cannibal holocaust, but the door was closed discreetly and respectfully (one of those very British "I don't think this is really for me" walkouts), and the mood in the auditorium was more generally caught by the fellow sitting across the aisle from me, who cracked his knuckles as the lights dimmed, as if to say bring it on. In case there is anybody left in the world who was still in any doubt: it is most certainly brought.

We open on a rustic property in the middle of nowhere, inhabited by a couple whose age gap is as striking as their division of labour: the male half of the equation (Javier Bardem, 48), referred to in the credits as Him, sits behind a desk in his position as a lauded (if currently blocked) writer, while his younger, adoring better half, referred to as The Mother and played by 27-year-old Jennifer Lawrence, busies herself fixing up the place. One evening, an orthopaedic surgeon (Ed Harris) shows up at the couple's door, having mistaken this out-of-the-way property for a B&B; rather than turn this pilgrim away, however, the writer invites him in, pleased for the company, no matter that he proceeds to drop cigarette ash everywhere and condescendingly refers to his hostess as "not just a pretty face". More curious still: next morning, the surgeon's vampish wife (Michelle Pfeiffer) arrives equally unannounced, and again is taken in without too much in the way of intramarital consultation. Thick and fast they come at last, and more and more and more, Lawrence's tendency to refer in protest to what rapidly becomes a shelter for waifs and strays as "his [i.e. her husband's] home" rather than the more typical "our home" immediately raising what will prove a pressing question of proprietorship: just whose house is this?

Given the plentiful God's-eye shots establishing we are many, many hectares from reality, another question soon frames itself: what might this house represent? (I suspect mother! is more likely to keep you in your seat if you treat it as a giant game of What's Bugging Darren Aronofsky?) The film actually opens with a sequence in which solitary creator Bardem places a diamond on his mantelpiece that instantly transforms his cold, bare living quarters into the kind of trophy home money and success brings, running to three wood-panelled levels, brand-new fixtures and an attractive, pliable blonde in the master bedroom. Soon enough we will find out how these diamonds are mined - certain warlords may blanch - but the fact Lawrence senses this house has a pulse, possibly that of the organ she envisions being flushed down the toilet at one stage, has led some to speculate whether this vulnerable structure stands for the planet entire, a vulnerable Eden set to be despoiled by a combination of reckless indifference and sudden, rampant over-population. The arrival of a preppy Cain and Abel - played, in a deft casting touch, by actual brothers Brian and Domhnall Gleeson - should be enough to remind us of the religiose Aronofsky who gave us The Fountain and Noah and that celebrated Christ allegory The Wrestler. (Even in his breakthrough film Pi, he was proposing a link between Hasidic Judaism and numbers.)

Increasingly, however, the film's structuring concern looks to be fame, that new religion: could Aronofsky, the fabled director oft-papped in the presence of former flame Rachel Weisz and current muse Lawrence, merely be writing what he knows? In this reading, the circular dream home functions as a mixed-media metaphor for living in the panopticon of the public eye, a spot where all the money in the world can't protect you from the barbarians at the gate, nor from the strains that fame will place on your relationships. That reading fair screams woe-is-me millionaire self-pity, yet Aronofsky circumvents it by being uncommonly honest - to the point of self-laceration - about male control and a woman's place within that framework. By far the most peculiar hot takes on mother! have been those which have argued that the subjugation of the Lawrence character - Bardem's blithe insistence that she cook, clean and conceive while he gets on with the truly important business of writing stuff down - is presented in a favourable light; it strikes me that the unease of the film stems from a deep-seated unease with these one-sided types of relationships, and male privilege in general. Consider the passing anecdote in which Lawrence rejects the advances of some slick dude who's popped up in her kitchen, and is informed in turn that she is, in fact, an "arrogant cunt": that's not horror, nor fantasy, but documentary footage, readily sourced from any number of parties and online forums.

As it is, I was more taken by Lawrence's resilience here than I was at any moment in the Hunger Games series, or indeed Winter's Bone before that - she's really up against something in these two hours - and found her final-reel fightback all the more cathartic, given the passivity she'd previously been forced into. (Could it be in some way telling that both female leads are involved with hugely successful writer-directors, and therefore perhaps know better than most that of which the film speaks?) What's most thrilling about mother! is the possibility it could house all of these possibilities, and much more besides - that a multiplex movie might have something other than sequels on its mind, and could finally be entrusted to grown-ups, even if the squeamish among them were sent packing long before the closing credits. Having now experienced mother!'s final act, I cannot entirely blame them: there is imagery here that decimated the Peter Greenaway fanbase back in 1993, let alone a crowd showing up in cheerfully optimistic expectation of seeing the world's number one female star in what could, from the outside at least, have appeared like another Paranormal Activity or The Conjuring Part III. What's especially shocking and wrenching is that all this carnage is wrought in the name (or guise) of love, the film's ultimate concern: I sensed Aronofsky substituting in extreme physical violence in a non-safe psychic space for the equally horrifying emotional violence taking place in the wider world.

mother! scatters reference points like tears - among other phenomena, you may, in the course of the film's duration, find yourself being reminded of bad AirBnB experiences, the reaction to news of yet another Royal baby, possibly even Rod Hull's Pink Windmill (there's somebody else at the door) - yet the one that has stayed with me is the idea this might just be Aronofsky's Magnolia: prodigious OTT cinema (not least for its ability to squeeze the entirety of Paul Thomas Anderson's L.A., frogs included, onto a single soundstage) which has turned people off in their droves, but remains deeply, at times painfully personal in what it's attempting to articulate. Aronofsky is gloomier than Anderson, which accounts for that final mise en abime: he pulls absolutely no punches whatsoever in laying bare the relationships certain male creatives initiate, and entrap others within, and the grave collateral damage that can result from those relationships. (His chosen title, naturally, is that hollered by lost boys everywhere.) Yet it struck me that mother! was constructed from the off as a cautionary tale, a sick joke that skews into outright tragedy, a warning of things from which any sensitive soul might well want to flee. Aronofsky seems to know all too well the fire he's playing with here, and as much as his astonishingly apocalyptic film wants to burn or otherwise bring the house down, it's really trying to break your heart.

mother! is now playing in selected cinemas.  

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