Darren Aronofsky’s latest is a dark swan dive to the depths of the artistic process that could be read as brilliant biblical allegory or a self-absorbed bid at vindicating failure
By Katherine Monk
TORONTO (September 10, 2017) – Oh, mother! The creative process can be a real bitch. Just ask Darren Aronofsky. The director of the Oscar-winning Black Swan returned to the Toronto International Film Festival with his latest film, mother! And already, it’s dividing audience opinion.
A laborious metaphor about the act of making art, the film stars Jennifer Lawrence and Javier Bardem as a handsome couple renovating an old farmhouse in the middle of nowhere. He’s a successful writer struggling with a blank page. She is the young muse, fixing and mending broken walls, looking to restore the house to its former glory after a fire burned it to the ground.
The only thing left is a diamond-like stone with a mysterious glow that he carefully places on a pedestal. Within seconds, the house regenerates itself, with Lawrence meticulously plastering and painting — hoping the new interiors will inspire her true love to create again.
Things seem to be progressing well, until uninvited guests start presenting themselves at the door, barging in to the carefully woven cocoon of love and safety.
First it’s a dying man played by Ed Harris. Then the dying man’s wife (Michelle Pfeiffer) shows up, treating the house as if it were her own. The intrusions continue, growing ruder and more violent with each scene. They are fans, fawning at first, but eventually the encounters become more disturbing, and more violent, until the final scenes become an animated Heironymus Bosch painting — a living nightmare, a home invasion of the imagination.
Taken as metaphor, the film is easy to defend: Artists spend their lives endeavouring to create something unique and beautiful, but when you release your baby to the world, you lose control. People may love it. Or they may rip it apart.
Taken literally, mother! is a shitty trip back to the Overlook Hotel, where Jack Nicholson lost his mind in a bid to write the great American novel — but got lost in the maze of marital and parental responsibility.
Stanley Kubrick’s 1980 film, The Shining, is a horror classic, which is no doubt why mother! is being marketed as a straight-up horror film, with images of Jennifer Lawrence being terrorized by some unseen force and Javier Bardem offering up a trademark menacing glare.
But the marketing campaign could well be the film’s undoing, setting up expectations that make the film seem, well, overcooked. No doubt, that’s how the man sitting next to me in the premiere screening felt about it, letting out a high-pitched squeal of laughter at the film’s gruesome finale.
Yet, for the duration, his body language seemed to be all fear: Cracking his knuckles, adjusting his posture, shifting in his seat every time Lawrence’s character walked into the cellar — finding hidden doors and bleeding walls with each visit.
Aronofsky nods to horror genre all the way through, using a well-established shorthand to pull the viewer into a familiar place, but mother! feels like a very private nightmare. It talks about the corrosive nature of mass success, the crudités-chomping parasites who appear out of nowhere and demand an intimate connection, and the impossibility of privacy in the fishbowl of fame.
It also feels like a giant wank powered by Jennifer Lawrence’s breasts — constantly present in the frames through gauzy white clothes until they are torn from her body.
It’s hard not to read all this through the lens of the gossip magazines given Aronofsky and Lawrence are now a couple. I felt the same way about The Fountain, the movie Aronofsky made when he and Rachel Weisz got married and gave birth to their son. That movie seemed to be about reckoning with parental responsibility, the gift of continuity, and the burden of mortality made easier with the consumption of mind-numbing narcotics. It was beautiful, but also frustratingly self-absorbed.
In the press conference for the film, Aronofsky offered a little self-deprecating humour when he called The Fountain his smash from Venice about life and death. The critical failure clearly landed a blow.
Mother! acknowledges and processes all that self-conceit, and turns it into a creep-fest. He says it’s Biblical metaphor, and the working title for the film was actually ‘Day Six’ — the day God created man and all living creatures. Certainly, it functions as Biblical allegory from a plot perspective, but it doesn’t necessarily capture a longing for spirituality.
It feels as if Aronofsky is taking a long look in the mirror and seeing the creative monster stare back at him. Every insecurity is unearthed, from the need for fame to the raw desire for adulation. The demons run amok, with Bardem — the cruel yet gifted creator — trying to justify the endless assaults as part of the process: the price that must be paid.
It’s the artist purging his rotting soul, and yes, it’s over the top. It’s repulsive and ugly. It’s abusive to the audience, who — by extension of the metaphor — become implicit participants in the wholesale destruction.
In essence, Aronofsky is giving us the finger as well as an axe to the forehead.
The anger is perfectly acceptable, and no doubt justified. Yet, beneath every frame of mother! pulses a heart filled with contempt — a rock hard belief that somehow, he is better than us, smarter than us, deeper than us.
And maybe he is. After all, he went to Harvard. He may as well be God.
Yet, when Kubrick exorcised the demons at the Overlook, he also tapped palpable love: Love of a mother for her son, and the emotional deficit presented by a family torn apart by a father’s need for personal creative validation.
The more Kubrick convinced us of the humanity, the more chilling its absence became. Thirty-seven years later, it’s clear movie has stood the test of time. Moreover, it’s become iconographic. Over the course of the festival, I’ve seen two critics wear the exact same hipster T-shirt — a nod to The Shining, showing a manual typewriter placed over the patterned carpet from Overlook.
Whether mother! becomes a cult success down the road remains to be seen. The film opens theatrically Friday, but I can’t help wondering what imagery might appear on a T-shirt 40 years from now. A lighter? A big diamond-like stone? A farmhouse sink? Jennifer Lawrence’s boobs?
They aren’t great symbols of the creative process, and that’s part of the film’s own problem — and perhaps a reason why it may not last the test of time. The imagery is neither subtle nor all that smart. It’s in your face — which may be the whole point of that exclamation mark at the end of mother! In your face! Indeed.
THE EX-PRESS, September 10, 2017
Editor’s note: Jay Stone and Katherine Monk filed simultaneous stories about mother! They wrote in isolation, yet both came up with very similar perspectives. So they must be right. Click here to read Jay Stone’s take.