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Darren Aronofsky's MOTHER! seems to have polarised the critical community. Its dismal box office is more a reflection of its risk taking than its quality. Provoking a whole host of emotional responses is a film Camus celebrates for its bravery.
 
  "You are talking about a director at the top of his game, and an actress at the top her game. They made a movie that was intended to be bold. Everyone wants original filmmaking, and everyone celebrates Netflix when they tell a story no one else wants to tell. This is our version. We don't want all movies to be safe. And it's okay if some people don't like it."
  Paramount worldwide president of marketing and distribution Megan Colligan

 

I have to say that given a night's sleep, mother! was the first thing on my mind this morning and to be honest, it's still there inviting me to explore it further. I tried to get the full blast of the experience under some control by diluting it with the Kingsman sequel but no... Kingsman: Golden Circle is great fun but you can't clean blood up with a meringue. Hand on heart, I thought I'd be covering Kingsman and letting mother! slip by. I'm shocked it's the other way around and also somewhat delighted. Cinema is alive! I have had the same level of reaction to mother! as I had to Dogville. Yes, it's that good. It is extremely rare for a studio to make such a statement (above) in support of their creatives just after a film's release and subsequent box office nose dive. The execs are either clinking champagne glasses or burying their heads at the wonderful or woeful cold, hard numbers. But all that is usually kept well out of the public eye. Ms. Colligan cares deeply about the film and I applaud her for it. But she's asking people to accept that there can be a wider palette of cinema than is currently available. She's right to widen the net but the net of true originality has much wider holes. Embrace filmic innovation by all means but mother! is a radical, allegorical drama with some explicitly difficult ideas and imagery that doesn't pander once to the perception of what works to guarantee an audience. I qualify that as a positive aspect of the film. Number crunchers will think me mad. Let's face it; most people will be challenged beyond their own tolerance to enjoy a film like this. You don't 'enjoy' films like mother! unless you're somewhat masochistic. But to take the challenge of artistic interpretation is, to me, like swallowing water in a desert. It's a tough sell and it stars Jennifer Lawrence, one of the very few movie stars whose presence 'opens' a picture. Those two facts should not be neighbours as true as they are. You could pack your movie with the cast of the Avengers and with a film like this one, you'd still not get back your investment. I salute Paramount for getting behind this film in this way. Yes, you could see the statement as a rallying cry of "We want to make more money!" but I'm not buying that. I think her words are heartfelt and sincere. How naïve does that make me?

Jennifer Lawrence in mother!

mother! Even the title is problematic. The lowercase 'm' and the exclamation mark... It's a verb too remember as well as a noun. It's also the title of one of the boldest movies of recent years, one that in a screening I attended yesterday provoked verbal exasperation; "Oh, for fuck's sake..." being heard at least twice from my left and laughter from the couple seated behind me. I sat there, took it all in and naturally recoiled at some of the sharper and more disturbing imagery and ideas but as an artistic accomplishment in the medium of film, the work is astonishing. There is no way I can write a review or touch upon the movie's many levels without vomiting spoilers, a fact Trevor Johnston of Sight and Sound had to warn his readers about in his insightful piece on the film ahead of the magazine's review in next month's issue. So I will make this review short. I'll allude to events rather than state them specifically. mother! has seeped into my darker recesses. And it's not going anywhere for a while. When it's more well known, perhaps at its Blu-ray launch, I'll re-review it so I can talk about it in more detail. The feast is a sumptuous one but not for those easily offended or those with an intolerance to horror. A partial synopsis will read like so much flour, eggs, cocoa powder and sugar. It's only at the end of the film do you see the beautifully iced but dark chocolate cake. I booked my ticket online utterly confused by the artwork on display thinking that Paramount's marketing department was off its trolley. It was only afterwards I realised that the web page was showing only the top half of the poster. I'll say nothing about it but will let the poster speak for itself...

Mother poster

Any meaningful interpretation of mother! requires rules. Without the framework, one that the viewer is required to impress upon the drama, the events are meaningless. The movie's very first image (you can hardly call that a spoiler) is a woman, not easily recognisable, beaten and bruised and in flames and in apparently no distress. This should have told me something from the start. What you'll read in most reviews is the following synopsis: Javier Bardem plays 'Him' a writer's blocked poet and Jennifer Lawrence, plays 'mother!' a frustrated interior decorator. She is doing up a grand house that once burned to the ground. She wants to make the home "a paradise" – there's one clue to a reading right there. Physically located far from anywhere, we are surprised as much as Lawrence is by a knock on the door. Bardem takes in a stranger, an intrusive and creepy Ed Harris shortly followed by his wife, Michele Pfeiffer, who manages to make me feel unwelcome in my own cinema. Here the clues start to show themselves. During their first socially inappropriate open mouth kiss, all I could think was "Yuck, he's just finished a cigarette..." These strangers do not act like human beings. Wait. Let me qualify that. They act like the very worst visitors and like Lawrence, we are repelled by them and their astounding moral digressions and blunt, unapologetic rudeness. It's during these scenes that the intimation of allegory started to tap me on the shoulder. I am not watching 'real' people in a realistic domestic setting. Something is seriously 'off'. Writer/director Aronofsky has something much different in mind for us. This is what's known in the trade as 'an understatement'. Bardem makes a lot of excuses for his rude guests because we are told that they are fans of his work. In retrospect, this is when a key (certainly not the only key) starts to playfully tease its lock. Once the rude couple's sons turn up, you'd have to be a bit slow on the uptake to think that you are watching a household drama with any resemblance of normality. Here, the full allegorical power of the piece starts to exert its sure and subtle grip. To say any more of the plot would be disrespectful to you and the filmmaker but you do need to be warned. Aronofsky, Bardem and Lawrence do not flinch on their way down the steps to hell...

Directorially, mother! Should slowly grind you down – perhaps this was the intention. Eighty per cent of the film is Jennifer Lawrence in mid shot and close up. We are anchored to her throughout the film with barely a let up. To facilitate this dizzyingly relentless point of view, the surround sound work is first class and I spent most of the first half hour of the movie extremely nervous. Aside from a song over the closing credits, there is no music but the sound design is exemplary. The acting is absolutely superb across the board and all power to Lawrence for having the guts to play this role. There is a moment in the film that is so horrendously brutal that allegory or not, you feel every blow (and still in mid shot to close up on Lawrence). Because of this repetitive framing, every time Bardem's face comes into shot, it seems supernaturally enlarged. Like everything in the film, you feel directorial intention by the bucket load. There is a huge and satisfying irony evinced by the directorial style that living the film through Lawrence's character belies until the very end. Personally, this was one of the film's most pleasing moments and revelations and you're not getting a peep out of me about that here.

Jennifer Lawrence in mother!

mother! is mainstream cinematic art that tests the very existence and usefulness of the 'star system'. Lawrence's presence in the film may have given Aronofsky a green light – Lawrence and Aronofsky are an item and it cannot be a coincidence that he's the same age as Bardem in the film married to a much younger woman – but the Hunger Games star did not attract her young 'Hunger' hordes and everyone knew there was a real risk in expecting her to. The film received both boos and a standing ovation at the Venice Film Festival, surely a feather in the cap of any artist. If you go in and accept at face value what is presented in front of you, you will despise this awkward, nonsensical and hugely upsetting film. If you go in and advance an allegorical reading of what you are seeing, you may still despise this film but then again, maybe, like me, you won't. Maybe it will open your mind to the power of cinematic art and how creative thought can, virus-like, be communicated to willing minds. mother! is the end product of the world in which we are now living. I think a second viewing is on the cards... If you get that writer/director Aronofsky is not telling a 'real' story but a loaded allegory about environmentalism ('mother' Earth?) human relationships, narcissism (hullo Donald), power, fandom and practically anything else you can think of then you may even enjoy the starkly unenjoyable. From me, it comes highly recommended but with a warning. It's strong stuff even for an allegory. But thank Him we still have real artists working in cinema.
Mother poster
mother!

USA 2017
121 mins
directed by
Darren Aronofsky
produced by
Darren Aronofsky
written by
Darren Aronofsky
cinematography
Matthew Libatique
editing
Andrew Weisblum
production design
Philip Messina
starring
Jennifer Lawrence
Javier Bardem
Ed Harris
Michelle Pfeiffer
Brian Gleeson
Domhnall Gleeson
Jovan Adepo

UK distributor
Paramount Pictures UK
UK release date
15 September 2017
review posted
21 September 2017

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