Like a Lanthimos film in a fever dream, Mother! is Darren Aronofsky at his most grandiose. Receiving both boos and standing ovations at festivals, this is a film you will either love or loathe. Obtuse, metaphorical and surreal, its central female character and dark vision held my attention throughout, only faltering as the worthy but somewhat prosaic meaning became clear.
The characters in this have no names. Jennifer Lawrence is Mother, a young woman married to an older man, played by Javier Bardem and listed in the credits as Him. They live in a large and beautiful house in the middle of green fields and forest. She is nervous when he is not there, wandering the house barefoot looking for Him and has single-handedly restored his house after it was burnt in a fire. He is a successful writer who is struggling to write his second book.
A man (Ed Harris) arrives unannounced and is allowed to stay the night, much to Mother’s discomfort. He is joined by his wife, the Woman (Michelle Pfeiffer) and their intrusion into Mother’s privacy and sanctuary and the lack of voice she has in her relationship begins to unravel her peaceful existence.
At first I thought the film was a metaphor for abusive relationships. Mother is needy and forever helping and fixing and meeting the needs of Him. Her grasp on reality is tenuous and his lack of concern for her is relentless. His ego dominates everything. But then the curtain is pulled away, at least for me, with the visual telling of the story of his second book and I realised this was a much more ambitious metaphor.
I’m not sure I would have enjoyed this film as much as I did if I’d known what this larger metaphor was. It is obscured for the most part by the kaleidoscopic and surreal action, emotion, blood and horror and perhaps not every viewer would understand that each character is playing a particular part in another, much older, story.
Metaphors aside, this is quite a solid movie with a strong and believable performance from Lawrence, who is in every scene. She is convincing as someone desperately trying to hold on to sanity when everything around her doesn’t make sense. She could be any person in a relationship when they realise their partner is not who they thought they were. She has a tenuous grasp on her own power, her sense of self, and it is easily derailed by the capriciousness of Him, by his lack of concern for her as an equal.
I wish Aronofsky had built more layers and relied less on his central and somewhat didactic theme. He has said that he woke from a ‘fever dream’ and wrote the film in five days. It does show. I would have liked the relationship to be more realistically grounded so that the connections between the every day and the universal could be explored. There is nothing particularly subtle about this film nor any doubt where the menace and blame lies. Although it is a surreal and enjoyable ride, the narrative arc and denouement are satisfying but unsurprising.
Have you seen this film? I’d really love to hear your thoughts in the comments below. Didn’t understand the metaphor? I’ll spell it out in the comments if you ask.