We've heard the scenario before: half the audience stands and hisses while the other half cheers over the disgruntled boo's and slaps their hands together unapologetically. When a film like mother! comes around, people become a fervid Roman audience that will either demand blood or sing praises until the empire falls. The Tree of Life, Antichrist, Only God Forgives — all these films had a similar effect, and now Darren Aronofsky's mother! approaches the bench. No matter how it turns out, it takes a fearless director to watch a commercial audience gnaw on obscure and often misunderstood works of art.
Allegory Versus Answers
Contained to a single location, mother! invites us into a surreal, audacious, spectacular vortex of tension and horror. Breathed on to the page in five days and shot on fabulous 16mm film, Aronofsky creates an explicit and explosive allegory that leaves more than enough room for individual explication. That is, of course, if you pay no attention to the interviews of Aronofsky or any of the actors.
A film of this breed needs to be experienced, mulled over and given meaning. If the allegory is forced upon us, our own personal response to the film becomes nothing more than an inaccurate reading of a simple story. Without any explanation or artist bias, we are then left with the shrapnel pierced into our flesh to reflect upon and interpret, no matter how painful the experience may be. Hearing the artist explain what is “truly” going on behind the mysterious curtain is like being given an intense sedative that subdues your imagination — you don't want that.
The difference between films like mother! and the ones that vie for the box office is that their value ultimately derives from their artistic integrity rather than their commercial appeal. When a filmmaker decides to take this route, it is a long, arduous, and sometimes lonely journey, but ultimately more rewarding (so I hear). The vision of the project is less tampered with, which allows an auteur to really hone in on what he or she is trying to say while showcasing the director's filmmaking abilities.
On the other hand, the lack of fingerprints may reveal a clumsy or inept attempt at visual storytelling, which will ultimately come off as pretentious. Aronofsky has been called both an auteur and pretentious, but I feel his films achieve their desired effect with a distinct psychological style and intensely subjective perspective.
The Subjective Perspective
There really isn't an easy way to describe mother!. Put simply, Jennifer Lawrence plays a woman who is remodeling her home and faces opposition in various forms during her quest to create a paradise for her and her husband. Beyond that, you're on your own.
Her character, known only in the credits as Mother, seems to have an intimate connection with the house. At times, this is shown literally when she presses herself against the wall and we push in to see a beating heart underneath its surface, but over the course of the film it gets weaker and begins to decay; a sight that is troubling to her. When seeing moments like this on screen there are a few ways to interpret the visuals. It is either a metaphor for something going on within the character, a hallucination, or it is a literal heart fixed inside the wall of the house. Aronofsky wisely does not give an explanation.
Prior to this, we observe Lawrence and her morning ritual as she wanders around the house barefoot, diligently working on her renovations. The camera hovers around her at such close proximity that we feel guilty for intruding on her personal space, but do so persistently. This guilt is amplified by ten thousand when she's literally blown into the third act, harassed beyond belief while her home is being defiled and all we want to do is leave her be.
The film never ventures beyond the walls of the house and the camera never leaves Lawrence's side. It is completely through her that we experience this house and the isolated feeling that it creates. The setup here, contained with false scares and eerie basement sounds, feels like a horror. We sense that the house is being overtaken by something sinister, but we don't know what exactly. We only see what is expressed through the perspective of Lawrence's character by way of her subtle performance.
The subjective point of view is staple of Aronofsky's style. It effectively plants us in the character's environment in a way that only they can experience. He often fuses fantasy with realism in order to sink us further into the character's psyche and express a deeper desire, fear or ambition. This subjectivity gives way to the expressionist style of filmmaking that #DarrenAronofsky is notoriously known for. Blending reality and fantasy is also something that separates commercial filmmaking with art-house. Often, the merging of the two comes off as confusing to the viewer and may leave him or her waiting for an explanation. The lack of explanation is what removes mother! from the commercial heap and places it in the glorious realm of art-house.
A Different Point Of View
Aronofsky has made a reputation of creating visually engaging images with an expressive palette and limitless canvas. The world of his characters are not limited to the physical setting of the film but stretch beyond the reality of their environment and extend to their psychological state of being, often shown in a literal way.
In The Fountain, we witness Hugh Jackman's character suffer through his grief after his wife passes away while he tirelessly strives to find a cure for the sickness that will eventually come for us all: death. His cycle of grief and hope are shown through grounded scenes of depression and agony, but also through a dreamlike sequence of space travel that move in and out of the narrative like a hallucination.
We are experiencing it all with the character but the story never pauses to establish the rules. This allows us to grasp a deeper insight into the character's mind and share in their subjective experience. So, when Jennifer Lawrence's character in #mother is thrust into an ecclesiastical, apocalyptic nightmare that bends the rules of our familiar reality, we are not removed from the story but embedded into the protagonist's psychological state.
In the hands of a lesser #director, this sort of style could easily come off as a pretentious pile of film school garbage. Thankfully, Aronofsky has figured out a way to integrate fantastical sequences within a proper narrative. Some will dig it, some won't. Regardless, Aronofsky approaches each film with imagination and a fearless vision.
What was your impression of mother!?