I have a near-pathological dislike of people coming into my home uninvited or unannounced. I remember when we first moved into the house we live in, it had a front door which, if it was unlocked, you could just open and walk in, as friends, relatives and in-laws were wont to do. Now, don’t get me wrong, I’m a reasonably sociable chap but the idea of just walking in to someone’s house without their by your leave is anathema to me. On that level alone, Daren Aronofsky’s “mother!” presented me with an unsettling and anxious proposition. In addition to that, I’ve also experienced one or two catastrophic burst pipe floods which have made me preternaturally wary of wood which suddenly begins to creak, discolour or rot away, adding another layer of dread to proceedings. Of course, Aronofsky’s last feature was itself concerned with a calamitous flood and having delved deep into the Old Testament for “Noah” it’s pretty clear from “mother!” that Aronofsky hasn’t come back yet.
A poet struggling with writer’s block (Javier Bardem) and his wife (Jennifer Lawrence) are living in a large, isolated house. They pass their days in an uneasily idyllic peace, she slowly and painstakingly restoring the house, he staring at a blank page willing the words to come. Their tranquil existence is shattered by the arrival of a stranger whom the poet welcomes in, as in his house there are many rooms. The stranger is followed shortly by his wife and eventually their two sons, utterly shattering the beatific lives of the couple. Eventually, the strangers are cast out and things seem to return to the bucolic nirvana of the couple’s lives, especially as she discovers she is pregnant and the poet’s writer’s block shatters into inspiration, only to take a darker turn as the poet’s new work inspires fanatical devotion.
Anchored by an initially stiff but ultimately sensationally compelling performance from Jennifer Lawrence, “mother!” is, by turns, disturbing, baffling, horrific and blackly hilarious. It’s certainly the most batshit crazy film to be released by a major film studio this year – and maybe any other year. Gliding under the radar as an updated and surreal riff on “Rosemary’s Baby”, instead Aronofsky delivers an excoriating deconstruction of the Bible, highlighting as he does so one of its most vociferously disputed and expunged characters.
“mother!” is a gift for cinephiles, a veritable Garden of Eden lush with potential interpretations and debatable analyses, but the biblical source material is impossible to ignore. For me, Aronofsky interprets the events of the Old and New Testament, through his allegorical lens, from the point of view of Asherah, the all but erased and ignored wife of God.
It’s through her devotion to her husband that we come to see the myth of creation as she works tirelessly to rebuild their home after a devastating fire, but her husband is fascinated by the visitors who come to praise him and his work, making room in his house for them and involving himself in their family dramas and tragedies. It’s her husband who, inspired by the forthcoming birth of his child, reveals a brand new book which brings even more devoted acolytes to him and prompting him to offer them his only child.
Bardem is perfect as the archetypical Creator, beneficent, inscrutable, capricious and vain. His indifference to his wife’s feelings are a constant source of the uneasiness which runs through the movie as it explores, explodes and refashions Christian doctrine into a heinous and distressing freak show, red in tooth and claw, ultimately destroying everything and compelling God to once again bring the universe into being. Of the interlopers, Michelle Pfeiffer steals the limelight, and almost the entire movie, with a deliciously subtle and cunning performance.
You might marvel at it, you may even embrace its darkness, brutality and pitch black humour (as I find myself doing the more I reflect on it), you should certainly admire it but, I think, it will be a rare individual who loves this film. There will be a lot of people who hate it. It’s a horrific horror movie, horribly compelling, deeply traumatic and weirdly both cathartic and intolerable. “mother!” is the cinematic purgatory we need and deserve for a summer spent idolatrising substandard sequels and remakes.