In an isolated octagonal house surrounded by whispering grass, a nameless young woman (Jennifer Lawrence) and her much older husband (Javier Bardem) are living a precariously peaceful life. She is refurbishing their home, which is scarred from a fire that predates their marriage; he is a poet, much-celebrated but currently blocked.
One evening they have an unexpected visitor: a jittery doctor (Ed Harris) who needs a bed for the night. The woman is resistant but her husband seems positively enthused by the idea of a guest. The next day, the doctor’s wife (Michelle Pfeiffer) arrives, overflowing with vampy sexual energy and making insinuating remarks about the woman’s childlessness and the age difference in her marriage. Alarm bells start ringing. Actual alarm bells, that is: breakfast is burning. The inference is clear. She’s trouble.
This scenario of sinister social comedy comprises only the first 20 minutes of Darren Aronofsky’s spectacular and volatile film Mother! and offers no indication of where the rest of it is heading. There are hints early on that the house is twinned with Lawrence’s psyche; whenever she places her hands on the walls, we cut to a shot of a pulsating organism, suggesting that the building itself is alive. As the property is subjected to vandalism – imagine Roman Polanski directing The Money Pit and you’re close – it comes to represent the fragile life that this couple have built for themselves in the mistaken belief that happiness can stave off the world and its woes.
Aronofsky’s grasp of spectacle has veered between the intimate (Black Swan) and the overblown (Noah) but he fuses both here, turning a chamber piece by increments into a rampaging, monstrous phantasmagoria, dragging the characters through different genres (comedy of manners, farce, horror) while escalating the mood of ecstatic delirium. One moment household items are accidentally smashed; then a priceless stone vital to Bardem’s wellbeing is shattered.
A bloodstain on the floorboards graduates into an unmistakably vaginal opening that eats through the wood. There’s a room that is crudely boarded up to keep out intruders but also an entire labyrinth hidden behind a stone wall. When Lawrence says “I’m confused,” she could be speaking on behalf of the audience.
One thing they won’t be is bored. Aronofsky rattled off an initial draft of the screenplay in six days and the end result thrives on that tumbling, runaway rhythm: it feels as if the movie is being poured onto the screen as we watch. The rapidly accelerating events suggest a reversal of Buñuel’s The Exterminating Angel, the conundrum here being not why people won’t leave, as in that film, but where they might be coming from. When Lawrence asks a stranger what he is doing in her house, he responds with a wan philosophical enquiry (“What are any of us doing here?”) that is mordantly funny in the face of her mounting exasperation.
Lawrence has one note of pained incredulity to play for two hours, just as Bardem is required to respond to her only with consoling platitudes, but Mother! depends on her for its success. In the film’s mood of Buñuelian wickedness, she tries at all times to be reasonable, preferring to put up with imposition rather than undermine her husband.
The cinematographer Matthew Libatique favours the handheld close-up, keeping the frame tightly crowded but unstable, so that chaos has descended before we can register what’s happening. Action is dictated by dream logic – Lawrence finds herself called upon to give a speech at the wake of someone she didn’t even know. As the film grows nastier, there is a sense that it could be read as a commentary on her own experience of fame. A star whose private photographs have been distributed online might have a unique appreciation of how it feels to confront a hostile, faceless mob.
Mother! is strange but it isn’t surreal, and this prevents it from reaching the heights of Buñuel or Polanski. Aronofsky offers an embarrassment of interpretations rather than the stubborn refusal of them that surrealism demands.
It might be addressing the inseparability of the personal and the political; the uncontainable enormity of globalism; the destructive properties of creation; the creative properties of destruction – and how love is never quite enough. The film is a one-size-fits-all allegory, gloriously visceral in the moment but too easily decoded to endure. The only things we can be sure it’s definitely not about are the challenges of renovating a house and the difficulty of removing stains from the woodwork.