Edition 28 September 2017
We start and end in flames, with an image of a fiery face giving way to a mysterious crystal, which breathes life and light into a charred, blackened house. This is the home of Javier Bardem’s “Him” (all characters are unnamed), nurtured anew by Jennifer Lawrence’s devoted wife. Octagonal in shape, the house variously resembles a vast temple and a panopticon prison, with a sinister hint of the haunted lair from The Amityville Horror. It is a living presence, with a heartbeat that thrums through its walls and floorboards, umbilically linked to Lawrence’s barefoot “Mother” who harbours as-yetunrealised dreams of parenthood.
Within this Edenic idyll, Bardem’s jaded poet is failing to write his masterpiece – until the arrival of a mysterious stranger (Ed Harris) and his glamorous, garrulous spouse (Michelle Pfeiffer) tickles his egotistical fancy. Seemingly blind to his wife’s nesting instincts, the poet revels in the adoring chaos these outsiders bring. Gradually, Mother!’s anxieties about breach of privacy turn to something closer to home invasion horror, with the narrative straying into the territory of Graham Greene’s short story The Destructors. And then things start getting wild at heart and crazy on top.
Aronofsky has said that the first draft of Mother! poured out of him in a five-day “fever dream” and it’s tempting to review the result in similarly spontaneous fashion. Yet more than any other of Aronofsky’s works, this is a film that demands distance and decompression. In the screening room I found Mother! an increasingly exasperating experience – a claustrophobic exercise in ghastly black comedy; relentless, ridiculous, and occasionally panic-inducing. Yet give it time to settle, and the labour pains of watching Mother! produce something that you could grow to love. The narrative can be read in any number of ways: as a Rosemary’s Baby-style expression of antenatal paranoia; as a war-of-the-sexes fable about older men feeding upon the support of younger women; even as a simple tale of marital breakdown. Yet there’s clearly an overarching allegory here about impending eco-catastrophe and the mistreatment of Mother Earth. Aronofsky is understandably cagey about specific meanings, but he’s spoken of the film as “a snapshot of the world” threatened by overpopulation, climate change, poisonous politics and war. For him, this is a tale of “a woman who is asked to give and give and give until she can give nothing more”.
As for me, the further away I get from Mother!, the closer it moves to my heart. It’s a delirious, disgraceful experience – just make sure you give it space to breathe.