It is not uncommon for a filmmaker of exceptional talent to make a deliberately challenging film. That word, “challenging”, can refer to almost anything; challenging to make, to sit through, to understand. Sometimes one asks, simply, why not? Why not encrypt the language of cinema such that it is illogical, inaccessible, unpleasant? Stanley Kubrick’s 2001: A Space Odyssey seems to have been born of this impulse, as does Orson Welles’s F for Fake, Nicholas Roeg’s Bad Timing, David Lynch’s Mulholland Drive, and Nicolas Winding Refn’s Only God Forgives. These are films as conversation-starters, by interlocutors with a profound grasp and understanding of language. But even among such exalted company, Darren Aronofsky stands out. His conversations are all one-way. Deliberately challenging films seem to be the only films he’s interested in making.
His latest, mother!, with a lower-case M and an exclamation mark, both sure to infuriate grammarians, is arguably his worst; an extraordinarily pretentious, rigorously self-exploratory satire of fame and the life of a creator that is 50% late-60s Roman Polanski, 50% lurid, sadistic fever-dream, and 100% flailing, try-hard bullshit.
The titular mother is played by Jennifer Lawrence, although we meet her childless (and nameless, thanks to another of Aronofsky’s insufferable stylistic flourishes.) She’s the devoted spouse of a mid-career poet – formerly of notoriety – played by Javier Bardem, who is exactly as many years older than Lawrence as Aronofsky himself – a subtle reminder of the director’s own romantic entanglement with his star. The couple live in a vast, oddly-shaped Victorian house in the middle of a tree-ringed meadow, where Lawrence busies herself with single-handedly restoring the property, which has been extensively ravaged by fire. Bardem confines himself mostly to his top-floor office where he accomplishes nothing, thanks to crippling writer’s block and, it’s strongly implied, impotence.
It must be said that there’s nothing particularly compelling or believable about a man in his late-40s being unable to get it up for his implausibly beautiful twenty-something partner, and nothing that Aronofsky does in the film’s dull and empty first hour made me feel otherwise. The relationship melodrama (staged in a classy, upscale environment, as is Aronofsky’s way) is exacerbated by the arrival of a husband and wife, played by Ed Harris and Michelle Pfeiffer, whose adoration of Bardem’s work reignites his creativity, but also his vanity, his neediness, and his disregard for his wife’s devotion. The couple casually insult, dismiss and defy Lawrence, who becomes increasingly bewildered when Bardem invites them to stay in their home. I should mention that she has frequent fainting spells, visions of the house’s foundations moving, and imagines a huge beating heart floating inside the walls.
Whether Lawrence or everyone around her has lost their mind is part of the film’s visible narrative architecture; an extremely heavy-handed allegorical insistence that living the life of a great film director is harder than it looks – and being married to one is almost impossible. The theme conflates the difficulties of maintaining artistic inspiration with maintaining a family and a balance in one’s personal life, and of course, this coming courtesy of Darren Aronofsky, that theme is arranged around a very specific (and, contrary to the film’s current reputation, easily-identifiable) literary reference-point. (Here’s a clue: Phil Collins played the drums.) Religiosity as structural metaphor is, of course, one of Aronofsky’s favourite things.
There are big ideas here, but none that should be of any concern to anyone other than Darren Aronofsky. His reckoning with the vampiric impulses of artists – particularly older, male ones – to draw personal and artistic sustenance from the blood and bodies of young women feels like a man sweeping out the dustiest corners of his own psyche. That isn’t to say that mother! is a work of autobiography – it confesses no actual misdeeds or abuses, but the temptation of those in the realm of art to commit them; to use their power, whether it stems from talent, experience, fame, or money, to wring from their muses every drop of inspiration they’ll offer. According to Aronofsky, the devotion of those muses, however unselfish and sincere, is an act of sacrifice. They prostrate themselves across art’s stained altar and offer their love, in service of creation. They’re currency, to be spent.
In its first half, mother! feints towards a psychological thriller and an absurdist domestic farce, but it’s really a story about sterility, of the body and the imagination. At some point between the first, violent death and the second, the film drastically realigns, offering a portrait of fecundity – a new book, a new baby, a new start – as the artist’s weakness; a window through which his vanity and his audience can reap destruction. The prolific artist, suggests mother!, is one who erodes the boundary between his private life and public identity, offering themselves, their emotional well-being, and that of their domestic partners and loved ones, for the consumption of the crowd. There is no difference in the film between a benign admirer and an obsessed devotee; each takes from the artist, tears the carpets from his floor and the fitments from his walls, helps themselves to whatever they like until all that remains to be consumed is the artist himself – and, mother! suggests, his partner, who is herself an offering to satiate the mob.
Close to the end, mother! descends into surrealist sensory-overload, and visits an ever-increasing series of grotesque torments upon Lawrence, all of which are designed to court the crowd. I’ve seen people speculate as to how Aronofsky convinced a major studio to fund such brutality and cruelty, but the simple answer is that it doesn’t mean anything. Aronofsky is using metaphor to obfuscate a story which, even if only from its tabloid distortions, most people already know and understand. The metaphor detaches the artist and the audience from responsibility; justifies and excuses thoughtless excess, filters a rote and sophomoric thesis through layers of arthouse affectation. There is nothing more revelatory concerning the travails of great artists in the pursuit of great art here than there was in Dave Made a Maze, which made the same point using cardboard and glue.
People will insist that mother! is a fierce and challenging work, and that each frame pulses with Aronofsky’s genius, his ambition scrawled in white-hot magma across the screen: mother!, lower-case M, exclamation mark. I agree with F. Scott Fitzgerald that to use an exclamation mark is akin to laughing at your own joke, and Aronofsky must be howling. He was given $30 million to plant his flag on the windswept peak of his own reputation, and in the end, all he managed to convince us of was that he can still get it up for his sexy young girlfriend. He knows his audience will exalt him regardless. This isn’t the first time an Aronofsky film has been nakedly assembled to provoke conversation. It’s just the first time an Aronofsky film has nothing at all to say.
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Jonathon is the Co-Founder of Ready Steady Cut and has been Senior Editor and Chief Critic of the outlet since 2017.