In the final stretch of Darren Aronofsky’s desperately bleak, hammer-to-the-head drug drama Requiem for a Dream, the principal characters confront a series of challenges and hardships before eventually living happily ever after. And by “happily ever after”, I mean, this is an Aronofsky film, so:
- Marlon Wayans lies in a cold sweat in prison, coming down from heroin;
- Jared Leto wakes up in hospital to discover one of his infected, needle-jabbed arms has been chopped off;
- Jennifer Connelly interacts with a double-ended dildo; and
- Ellen Burstyn receives a brain-lobotomising dose of electroshock therapy.
In other words, they get off pretty lightly for a film directed by the seasoned cage-rattler, whose grasp of positivity and overall life outlook is, shall we say, not the same as the rest of us. The 48-year-old firebrand could re-edit Requiem, released in 2000, with a director’s cut that would be ten times as cruel to his characters – by making them sit through his latest provocation, mother!.
This lofty, pretentious, intellectually and emotionally grueling experience arrives machine-tooled to annoy as many people as possible, on as many levels as possible, down to the flagrant disregard for upper case lettering reflected in its title. The critics have been divided (though the film is currently sitting on a not-awful 68% Rotten Tomatoes rating) and the public even more so.
Given you read Daily Review, and therefore belong to the crème de la crème of the cultural elite, you’ve no doubt already heard friends and colleagues grouse about the film using words such as “sick”, “twisted” and “Ed Harris”. The last star-studded American movie to cause this much consternation was La La Land. Picking on Damien Chazelle’s sweet, Hollywood homage musical now feels like hollering at a puppy dog.
For a while mother! seems relatable enough, the story (written by Aronofsky) hinged on a common grievance: the presence of houseguests who won’t leave no matter how many hints you drop. A sad-eyed, tormented Jennifer Lawrence plays the protagonist, wife of a famous, writer’s block-struck poet played by Jarvier Bardem (neither character, nor any other, are given proper names).
Jennifer Lawrence,gives an excellent, overstrung performance: a tangle of nerves stretched to – and beyond – breaking point. Just like the audience.
The titular exclamation mark perhaps refers to their guests, who adore the poet’s work and stick around like a bad smell. They are Man (Ed Harris) and Woman (Michelle Pfeiffer). The pair are told not to touch a precious, semi-transparent rock kept on a metal stand in the poet’s office, which he took from the ashes of a house previously burnt to the ground. Let’s just call it a ‘forbidden fruit’.
It doesn’t require extraordinary insight to understand that Aronofsky is trading in allegory. Which, if you haven’t guessed by now (perhaps this constitutes a mild spoiler – though I think this knowledge is more likely to make the film slightly more tolerable, if that is possible) is very much biblical. The director has stated this directly to the press, ensuring an already obvious message is spoonfed some more.
Aronofsky may appreciate comparisons to Roman Polankski’s seminal ‘Apartment Trilogy’, made from the mid-’60s to the mid-’70s: Repulsion, Rosemary’s Baby and The Tenant. This, again, does not require great insight. One of the posters for mother! pays homage to Rosemary’s Baby, as if delivering the critical populace ‘how to construct your review’ assembly instructions.
The director might also appreciate a nod to filmmaker Luis Buñuel’s 1962 surrealist drama The Exterminating Angel, an infinitely better and more interesting film, about a group of guests who attend a fancy dinner party and find themselves mysteriously unable to leave the room. Buñuel’s guests realise the oddness of their situation and critically analyse it. Eventually the luxurious mansion they are stuck in, replete with roaming wildlife, starts to look like a squandered Garden of Eden – or a moment from The Hangover.
Aronofsky’s guests see nothing unusual at all. This puts Lawrence’s character in a Twilight Zone-esque state of mind, whereby she wonders what on earth is wrong with everybody else – before eventually erupting into full-blown hysteria. This is comfortable ground for the director, who is sadistic to his characters even (sometimes especially) in his best work: the exhilarating ballerina-gone-bad fever dream Black Swan, and the poignant – albeit with a semi-suicidal, suitably Aronofskyan twist – The Wrestler.
Realism is not the objective of the drama, which is devoted to symbols and double meanings.
There are many reasons to hate, as I do, mother! with the fire of a thousand burning suns. Here are two that first come to mind.
For starters, the lack of space between Lawrence and the cinematographer, long-time Aronofsky collaborator Matthew Libatique, who clings to the actor’s agonised face like a creature out of a Ridley Scott movie. We remain in suffocatingly close proximity to Lawrence, who, I will concede gives an excellent, overstrung performance: a tangle of nerves stretched to – and beyond – breaking point. Just like the audience.
Instead of depicting the drama from her perspective, however, Aronofsky and Libatique’s technical approach focuses on Lawrence’s endlessly disbelieving reactions. The visual pull of the film feels reversed: the cinematic equivalent of using the secondary, selfie camera on your smartphone. It also has a slightly sleazy effect, as if you’re constantly breathing down Lawrence’s neck, or she is constantly breathing down yours.
And, of course, there is the question of meaning. Or Meaning. Or meaning! The presence of allegory is so strong in mother! that action and interpretation feel separated by a hair’s breadth. Which is to say: the text is the subtext. Realism is not the objective of the drama, which is devoted to symbols and double meanings. Like Aronofsky’s 2006 head trip The Fountain, which introduced Hugh Jackman to the Tree of Life, it feels like a high-flown student project that got out of control.
mother! only works if you accept it as an allegory. And if accepted as allegorical – biblical or otherwise – there is no escaping that it is brutally, contemptuously heavy-handed. There is a part of me that respects, entirely grudgingly, the audacity required to make such a monstrosity. And another, far greater part of me that would like to track down and set fire to every copy of this film, then dance on its ashes.
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