This year at TIFF we’re seeing the Trump era’s first real artistic blowback. I started with Darren Aronofsky’s mother! (opening across North America this Friday, September 15th), and holy cow, it kicked things off with a bang. That exclamation point in the title is wholly deserved, and you can add about fifteen more in your head. Part psychological horror, part religious allegory, part study of the narcissistic vampirism of the artist/creator, mother! keeps coiling in on itself, like a serpent swallowing its frenzied, burgeoning tail. But is it a tale worth watching, or the sort of child only a mother could love?
mother! opens dark, with a close-up on Jennifer Lawrence’s burned visage. The charred remains of a house surround her. Abruptly the blackened walls and ash revert back to normalcy in a swift loop of backwards time, as Javier Bardem sets a diamond-like object carefully in a stand. Lawrence is mother, and Bardem is Him. None of the characters in the film have names. It’s that kind of movie.
Lawrence is Bardem’s much younger wife. He’s a famous poet, feeling the pressure of a long writer’s block. She’s a homemaker, literally rebuilding his childhood country mansion that was lost to a fire. Their relationship is odd: the gulf of their ages, their stilted interactions, the two of them alone in this vast home in an isolated countryside. And yet they do share a bonafide affection.
Their tense equilibrium is put to the test by the arrival of man, played by Ed Harris. Man is an elderly doctor with a nasty cough. He claims to have thought their house a B&B. Him and man fall to talking and hit it off immediately, much to mother’s chagrin. Him invites man to stay, and after a night of peculiar interludes, the next morning Michelle Pfeiffer turns up as man’s wife, called woman. Of course. She’s a witchy sort, full of backhanded comments for mother. Soon we discover they lied about their reasons for coming to the house. Man is an immense fan of Him’s work, and it’s his dying wish to spend time speaking with Him. Flattered and hungry for new interaction, Him is perfectly happy to let them stay. Mother doesn’t share his enthusiasm. These noisy interlopers are encroaching on their carefully cultivated privacy. It only gets worse, with the arrival of the elderly couple’s arguing adult male children.
Up to this point, the film shifts fitfully between the tropes of haunted house and slow-boiling home invasion. When one of the brothers murders the other, the contortions of Aronofsky’s biblical borrowing fall into place, with the ghosts of Adam, Eve, Cain and Abel all crashing the creator’s house. A night of lonely terror is followed by an insane wake the next day, as the grieving couple and their friends return to the house. More and more people pour through their door, all of them enraptured by Him’s work. They drive mother to distraction, acting like they own the place, eating the food she’s made, drifting off to paw each other in the master bedroom. Finally Him relents and kicks the intruders out.
That launches a brief idyllic interlude, where Him at last gives mother what she wants, a child.
But there’s never going to be any respite in a movie like this. As mother’s belly swells with her pregnancy, the poet finds inspiration again. When he publishes a new work, the poet’s fans come thronging out of the wilderness, ripping apart the house in their mad desire for a piece of Him. The film lets go of whatever reins were holding it back, with ever heightening acts of intrusion and barbarism. This bravura escalation is bound to be controversial, as the movie goes from house party gone wrong to random violence, cult ritual, military police and infanticide. You wanna be triggered, folks? This is the flick for you.
Lawrence is luminous and lost in equal measure throughout. She says it’s the first movie she’s played in where her character is always “on the back foot,” reacting with near constant horror and surprise. Bardem is self-absorbed and aloof, befitting a cypher that only really cares about the reception of his work. For a good chunk of the film, I wondered if I was watching a story about a mythological muse held hostage for its captor’s inspiration. How many times have we seen the artist as self-absorbed ass, dominating lovers and sycophants, draining their energy to fuel his own creative fires? As an archetype, it’s pretty real. (And interesting to imbue mother! with the subtext of Aronofsky and Lawrence’s real life relationship.) At a time when gender-reversed versions are all the rage in Hollywood, a flipped version of mother! would be hard to imagine. The dynamic between Him and mother seems entirely a construct of vampiric patriarchy, as the artist would do anything, and consume anyone, to create his art and engorge his ego.
mother! plays like Rosemary’s Baby for the modern era. There are swathes of other subtexts coursing through mother!’s raging heart. The frenzied crowds embody the madly spinning two-faced coin of adulation and hate that is social media. The bubbling violence exemplifies strains in society that can barely be contained. And lurking in the background is that golden-haired idiot god raining moronic destruction down on a planet that can’t defend itself. Trump is the epitome of self-absorbed malevolence. Aronofsky and Lawrence have both contended mother! is about climate change. And who better epitomizes the misogynist patriarch assaulting the weak protections of a lost mother Earth?
Entering the theatre, the audience was given cards with a poem credited to Rebecca Solnit:
our mother who art underfoot,
hallowed be thy names,
thy seasons come, thy will be done,
within us as around us,
thank you for our daily bread, our water, our air,
and our lives and so much beauty;
lead us not into selfish craving and the destructions
that are the hungers of the glutted,
but deliver us from wanton consumption
of thy vast but finite bounty,
for thine is the only sphere of life we know,
and the power and the glory, forever and ever,
Aronofsky’s mother! takes this Gaian conception of our planet and builds a harrowing assault around it. Him might build something beautiful through his work, but there is tremendous cost. mother! is a movie about the cost.
With that in mind, it’s hard to call the film good or bad. It’s exceedingly well put together in its aims, which are largely allegorical. A lot of people will probably dislike the dish they’ve been served. The trailer sells the idea mother! is a psychological horror movie along the lines of Black Swan, but it isn’t really. Maybe for the first half. After that, it’s something else entirely. In its unflinching design, mother! goes so far over the top it comes back ’round to the bottom again. The acting is wonderful, but the characters largely types, their unnamed status pulling them away from more tangible identification. Matthew Libatique’s cinematography is enervated and claustrophobic. The design of the house makes it feel like a palpable entity that mother is desperately trying to keep alive. A repeated motif features Lawrence pressing her face against and hugging the walls, cutting to a misshapen heart surrounded by ash, beating, stretching or shrinking as the emotion of the moment demands. The film’s circular ending bears witness to the intense pain of creation. For all its sound and fury, there’s no sense that the cycle can be broken. As long as we give our artists and patriarchs and even divinity unquestioning reverence, it never will be. And that, it seems, is mother!’s true horror. It’d be awfully nice if we could just wake up.