Paramount probably suspected mother! would provoke a strong response, but the studio surely never imagined this elevated psychological horror-thriller would receive an F CinemaScore from US moviegoers. Only a dozen or so movies have been slapped with the failing grade - and in most cases they proved unable to bust out of detention, hobbled early by poor word of mouth. The most notable exception was Paramount's previous horror pic The Devil Inside, which opened to almost $34 million on its way to topping out at over $53 million in North America and more than $100 million globally. mother! received its derisory grade after making a high-profile pit-stop at the Venice Film Festival, where it received both enthusiastic boos and a standing ovation. It earned a dismal $7.5 million on opening weekend (the worst wide launch of Jennifer Lawrence's career) and few films have managed to spark the same level of curiosity, debate, or visceral disgust, depending on your point of view.
Lawrence plays an unnamed heroine whose domestic idyll is overturned by a procession of malignant house guests. “I’m confused,” she confides as the nightmare begins and she's not the only one. “Yeah, well, that’s the journey,” said Aronofsky in a recent Guardian interview. “The movie has a dream-logic and that dream-logic makes sense. But if you try to unscrew it, it kind of falls apart. So it’s a psychological freak-out. You shouldn’t over-explain it.” mother! seems to take a particular delight in tormenting the audience, like Lars von Trier’s Antichrist as rewritten by Edward Albee, or a garish horror-comic by way of primal-scream therapy. While some directors like to dazzle and others prefer to seduce, Aronofsky simply tramples over audiences.
He wrote the first draft of the script in just five days, clearly influenced by both Nathaniel West's Day of the Locust and Luis Buñuel's The Exterminating Angel. Harold Pinter's perennial theme of minatory domestic intrusion also comes to mind (e.g. Joseph Losey's magnificent The Servant), as does Roman Polanski's Repulsion and Rosemary's Baby - but with none of their twisted Sixties sense of mordant humour. Prior to principal photography, the cast rehearsed for an astounding three months, during which time Aronofsky was able to "get a sense of movement and camera movement, and learn from that". He shot in claustrophobic, hand-held interiors and close-ups on 16mm film (the fourth time he has used this grainy format), enabling a false sense of intimacy which makes each subsequent shock all the more visceral and transgressive.
The narrative follows a lauded poet (Xavier Bardem) and his doting young wife who inhabit a bare-boards, Gothic house, surrounded by dense forest. Some years earlier, their house was almost destroyed in a fire and Lawrence spends her days meticulously restoring it, while Bardem struggles to overcome writer's block. The poet wants to fill the house with new ideas, either as means of inspiring his writing or distracting himself from it, and so he is happy to invite a lifelong fan (known only as “Man" and played by a cadaverous Ed Harris) to stay overnight, despite Lawrence's obvious discomfort. They are soon joined by his interfering wife ("Woman," the deliciously creepy Michelle Pfeiffer), followed by their feuding sons, their extended family, and other assorted friends, all of whom take an instant dislike to the subdued and long-suffering Lawrence. Bardem, on the other hand, is worshipped by the strange strangers and he adores them right back, totally unconcerned by his wife's increasing distress. Before long, the place is teeming with demonic revellers who trash the furnishings and drive an unresolvable wedge between the couple. They are all weirdly conspiratorial, treating their hostess the same way she views them - as annoying and unwanted guests. Eventually, they introduce a psychopathic level of chaos into Lawrence’s pristine home and she throws them all out.
The presence of these disturbed and disturbing strangers, however, only serves to invigorate Bardem, who suddenly finds the energy to simultaneously impregnate his wife and finish his magnum opus, which immediately speaks to the masses in a deeply profound way. Once again, the couple's home is infiltrated by adoring fans and the movie rapidly descends into outrageous violence and nightmarish horror. The entirety of human greed, selfishness, and suffering is graphically displayed, and it comes as something of a relief when the credits finally roll around.
Dysfunction and control are clearly two issues that Aronofsky is interested in examining, but with an autobiographical twist. mother! is about a monstrous 48-year-old artist and his 27-year-old muse. After divorcing Rachel Weisz, the 48-year-old director began a relationship with his 27-year-old star. Aronofsky readily admits the film contains personal elements: “It’s a projection of my life and what I’m thinking about. But my ego is in every character in every film that I’ve made. I’m the ballerina in Black Swan. I’m the wrestler in The Wrestler. I can see how people will especially make the connection with this one. But it’s also all fiction. It’s all smoke and mirrors. And if anything, my empathy here is more with the mother. I’m probably more Jen’s character than I am Javier’s … If you keep your eyes open the whole time, well, it’s like riding the Cyclone with your belt unfastened and your hands not touching the rails. And the second you look away, you’ve ruined it.”
Aronofksy has a well-deserved reputation for punishing not only his audience, but his actors as well. Mickey Rourke (Oscar-nominated for his brilliant performance in The Wrestler) has described him as "an old-style Jew gangster." Although known for being combative on set and filming his actors in extremis, he insists “It’s not about breaking them down. They break themselves down. They’re game … The original reason they started acting was to be able to cry in front of class. Sometimes they forget that, when they become big action movie stars, because that’s more about modelling than acting. But they love it, really. So I’m always looking for actors who want to roll up their sleeves and let loose and just cry. Javier’s not afraid of crying; he’ll do anything. Jennifer, completely the same. She’s still very young; not jaded in the least. And, yeah, she was scared on this movie, because she knew she was going to have to go for some big emotions.”
In a recent Vogue interview, Lawrence described her own experience in making mother!: “I had to go to a darker place than I’ve ever been in my life. I didn’t know if I’d be able to come out OK.” There were reports that she dislocated a rib during one particularly grueling scene and Aronofksy demanded she do the whole scene over again. “Yeah, she ended up tearing her diaphragm,” Aronofsky confirmed. “She was hyperventilating because of the emotion … I mean, we gave her time to recover. The thing is that she’d been thinking about that scene way too long, and it got all up in her head. So then the emotions flooded her and I saw what was happening - because I’m experienced - and was able to get the camera in the right place. The shot was originally on her back and I flipped the whole thing, let her recover and then said, ‘Get the camera on her face, right now,' because that’s the kind of emotion that you never, ever see.”
mother! is open to interpretation on many levels. It is a heavy-handed allegorical retelling of various Biblical and mythological narratives, with Bardem's character (listed in the credits simply as "Him") playing God and Lawrence as Mother Mary/Earth Mother; the fratricidal dispute is a version of the Cain and Abel story; the kitchen-sink disaster represents an archetypal Flood; and the final fate of their baby degenerates into a literal depiction of Communion. But while the Bible explores the relationship between God and man, mother! filters this through the perspective of Mother Earth, who never asked for any of us terrible people to be here, and who would very much like us to get down from the sink, please, as it's not braced for the strain. So the film is also be about climate change - instead of being caretakers, humans are really just unwelcome guests, infiltrating Mother Earth's home, then willfully destroying it. They pry into places where they are not wanted and scoff at Lawrence's repeated pleas and warnings. They make messes they never clean up and, when they do try to help, only make things worse (as in the case of two guests who start painting the house). They tear up walls just "to show we were here," snatching whatever they want with insatiable greed. "Home" becomes increasingly overpopulated, tipping past the point of no return, until its Earth Mother finally torches the place.
Throughout all this insanity, only Lawrence wants the guests to leave. Bardem enjoys having them around, as he finds their presence invigorating and inspiring. "It's so nice to talk to someone who understands my work," he tells his wife. He drinks in their admiration, welcoming journalists, followers, and fanatics alike. But they all want something from him in return, demanding his time, attention, and property. They descend upon his home en masse, cameras flashing, and crowd around him. Claiming to love him, they are not content with invading the couple's privacy, but go on to destroy their home, and eventually kill and consume their baby son.
Successful actors and film-makers are certainly familiar with being both worshipped and tormented by eager fans. In this context, mother! can also be read as a condemnation of a cannibalistic celebrity culture that places insatiable demands on its idols. The poet's words are not only beloved, but also inspire a rabid, possessive kind of love. Lawrence allows people into her home who first compliment her handiwork, then carelessly destroy everything she has so carefully constructed. When she finally gives birth, she refuses to let her baby go, but her husband shares their son with the world anyway. And her worst fears prove well-founded, as he is literally torn to shreds by the greedy crowd, who display a murderous level of aggression comparable to the rabid manner in which many armchair critics have ripped the movie apart on the internet.
Lawrence's character remains relatively passive until the final catastrophe. She just wants to be left alone in peace with her husband. To the extent that she is obsessed with anything, it is simply caring for him, their child, and their home. It is Bardem who seems bedeviled by an unquenchable need to create and an equally insatiable desire for adulation. On this level, mother! is another way of articulating Aronofsky's perverse interest in obsession - this time from the perspective of collateral damage. "What hurts the most is that I was never enough," Lawrence tells Bardem in the end, but his response is hardly reassuring - "Nothing is ever enough. I couldn't create if it was."
Although mother! does not directly address parenthood until Lawrence gives birth about two-thirds of the way through, it is certainly preoccupied with the culturally-constructed concept of motherhood. Even before she gets pregnant, Lawrence is depicted as the ultimate nurturer, cooking and cleaning without a word of complaint. "I got it" is the most-used phrase in her vocabulary. She is highly protective of those she loves and makes it clear she is prepared go to any lengths for her husband and their child, even keeping her son away from his own father if necessary. When Pfeiffer sighs, "You give and you give and you give and it's just never enough," she's talking about her own son, but she could just as well be talking about Lawrence and Bardem's relationship. Bardem's publisher reassures Lawrence that all her hard work was "worth it," but this comes as cold comfort when her husband can barely be bothered to look her in the eye. It is a dynamic familiar to anyone who has ever been in an unstable or unequal relationship, whether in parenthood or as a partner of someone emotionally unavailable.
As the house fills up, Lawrence is sent scurrying from one room to the next, vainly attempting to clear up the damage and finally ordering the interlopers to leave. The entire film could be interpreted as a metaphor for disease in which dark and hidden tumours metastasise and infest the whole body, as much as a macabre parable on the creative process, with the artist deciding what is allowed in and used up. In Aronofsky’s world, there isn't much difference. Some might even view the whole exercise as a form of dysfunction, but the director has never been the whining type: “I love shooting movies. Those are the times in your life that you really remember. I remember, crystal-clear, shooting certain scenes in Requiem for a Dream, right down to the shirt I was wearing on a particular day. And it’s still so sharp, you know, because you’re alive, because your brain’s firing. Because you’re living, right there, in that little moment.”
Subtlety has never been Aronofsky's strong suit, as he much prefers to hit his audience repeatedly over the head with a 2x4. His entire cinematic career has demonstrated an unhealthy obsession with unhealthy obsessions and a penchant for exploring compulsive behavior that teeters on the perilous brink of self-harm and addiction. All of his protagonists are fixated on something (drugs, fame, artistic perfection) and willing to pay any price to get what they want, usually destroying themselves and the people around them in the process. His 1998 debut Pi took a cerebral premise (a mathematician studying patterns in the Torah) and spun it into a paranoid fantasy, while the junkie nihilism of Requiem for a Dream evolved through the masochistic and redemptive contortions of The Wrestler and Black Swan, into the overblown and bombastic bilge water of Noah. In short, all of his movies pivot around characters with morbid levels of megalomania - and mother! is no exception. It's at once an anguished and apocalyptic howl that assaults the senses; a punishing ordeal that positively luxuriates in portraying pain; and an explosive, haunted-house horror flick capable of igniting a caldera of conflicting emotions and responses.